I am an Ironman – or so they tell me. I definitely heard Mike Reilly say it as I crossed the finish line. Do I feel different now, versus the day before? Well, I’m a heck of a lot more sore… I certainly feel proud to have completed the 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile run, but like many first time events in your life, it’s blur of emotions, images, pain, highlights. It’s quite surreal really, if not for the constant burning in my quads, I could be led to believe that I only imagined the whole thing.
My First Ironman
I am 35 yrs old, married and a father of 2. I also work full time (albeit with a flexible schedule most months). 6’2″, 193lbs.
I have raced many sprint and olympic triathlons, and several half iron distance races since starting in 2008, so it was almost natural progression to try a full iron distance race at some point, right? I have, however never swam 2.4 miles. I have never biked 112 miles. And I have never ran a marathon.
I decided last year (2011) to volunteer for Ironman Arizona so that I could soak up the vibe and guarantee a spot for this years event. Signing up a year in advance isn’t typically my style, but, for better or worse, that’s what’s required to enter an “Ironman” brand race.
In the year since singing up I prepared for my first marathon, but got sick 2 weeks out, and didn’t race. I raced Oceanside 70.3 2012 (PR’d with a 4:54), and I raced the Orangeman Half (4th in AG). Between those two I did some mountain biking, and broke my upper left humerus which led to me basically doing nothing in July and most of August. It was definitely a setback in my 2012 IMAZ preparation. I missed about 8 weeks of swimming, 6 weeks of running and 3 weeks of cycling. I didn’t let it break my spirit though. Setbacks happen and I had no qualms about the race. Once I could, I picked up and regained my fitness as best I could.
With my taper week in full force, I had time to think about goals for the race. Number one priority was to start, then to finish, then to do the best I could during the race. Smile, have fun, and enjoy what I accomplished to get here, and what I will accomplish throughout the day. No matter what the day would bring, I’d set a personal best time – that’s the great thing about doing something for the first time. Having never run a marathon, I would set a marathon PR as well. As far as times go, I figured I’d swim about 1:20 based on pool times, 70.3 times, and the fact that my shoulder still isn’t 100%, I anticipated about 5:30 on the bike, and about 4:00 on the run. All in all, when asked, my goal was somewhere between a best case of 10:30 and what I thought would be a conservative 12 hours.
We drove to the race venue Thursday after my daughter got out of school. Once at the hotel, we settled in.
The plan was to take it easy until race day. Friday, I went to register, check out the vendors, and then back to the hotel to lounge. Saturday, I went back to drop of my bike and bike/run gear bags. My daughter also ran the Ironkids mile. Pretty sure she was the fastest 6 year old out there. Against the suggestions of a friend, we hiked up Hayden Hill to take in the view, and headed back to the hotel. Feet up, hydrate, and relaxing time. I went to bed at the same time as the kids (9pm) and fell asleep pretty easily. I was up at 4:30am (no alarms needed on race mornings!) and felt refreshed. Got a solid 7hrs of sleep.
Race morning I was feeling pretty good. Never had any anxiety or nerves going on. I knew the task at hand, and didn’t let the distances overwhelm me (though admittedly, months leading up to the race I couldn’t wrap my head around running 26.2 miles at all – let alone at the end of such a long day). Since bike and gear were all set, race morning was easy. Get numbers put on, pump air into the tires, and put my water bottles on the bike. I also put my Garmin 500 on the bike, turned it on to get satellites, then turned it off. More on that later….
The Swim – 2.4 Miles – 1:19:13
I heard the announcer calling people to get in the water; the in water swim start was a couple of hundred yards from where we enter the lake, so I made my way in. One after another people were hopping in, and it was now or never. I hopped in. Water was about 68 degrees. Not bad at all. Tempe Town lake is brown and probably not the cleanest body of water, but it didn’t smell funny, didn’t taste funny, and 2 days later, I haven’t had any unexpected stomach issues, so I’ll call it OK. I made my way out to the swim start, and was very overwhelmed. It was 6:50am. I was shoulder to shoulder in the water with 2700 people, there were thousands of cheering fans on the Mill Ave bridge, and along the shoreline, 10 or 20 deep. It was amazing. I kept looking around soaking that image in. I won’t lie, I got a bit choked up and maybe even shed a tear.
Soon after the singing of the national anthem, they announced “about one minute to go” – the next notice was a cannon shot and the waters started churning. I started my watch and tried to get moving too. There were people everywhere. It was utter chaos. Arms, legs, bodies bumping, grabbing, smacking. It is unlike any race I’ve experienced. But then, I’ve never started a race with more than 150 people in a swim start. The first 10 minutes were an absolute mess, trying to just move forward. I’m not the strongest swimmer, so I was just in the middle of the mayhem. Eventually it cleared up some, but at no point during the swim was I “alone.” The swim was a big rectangle. Basically a mile east along the bank, then across the river to the other bank, and about a mile and half back. I tried to just focus on a nice steady stroke, and I was surprised I swam calmly the whole way. The return trip was endless. I saw the Mill Ave bridge shortly after the turn back, but it took a good 30 minutes for me to reach it.
Exiting the swim was also a fun challenge… There are stairs to get out of the river – except the first step is at water level – so it was a quite a reach to swing my leg up and on the steps. I didn’t struggle as much as some folks, but it wasn’t fun. I got out and started a light jog into transition. It was an odd sensation to be vertical after over an hour of being horizontal, so I took my time.
At 1:19, it wasn’t the fastest swim out there, it was actually 1066th out of the 2700… 169th in my age group.
Transition 1 – 00:10:16
Exiting the swim there was a long jog to the changing area. I found my bag very easily and headed into the tent. I decided a few weeks prior to the race that I would fully change in both transitions. So rather than wearing a tri suit start to finish, I swam in jammer shorts under my wetsuit, and then changed into a full bike kit in T1 (bib shorts, jersey, arm warmers). So my transition times reflected the clothing changes, but I chose comfort for 112 miles on the bike over the 3 minutes I’d save by not changing into proper bike shorts. Exiting I put on some sunscreen, and went to get my bike. Powered on my Garmin and…. and it was frozen on the Garmin start screen. I headed out and mounted, and still nothing. Awesome.
The Bike – 112 Miles – 5:08:53
My plan for the bike was to hold about 250w, 95+ cadence and have a good time. Something I’ve done in training rides a few times, so I figured it should be no problem. But my Garmin wasn’t working. Fortunately I just shrugged it off. Control the things you can, adapt when you can’t. I was wearing a Garmin 310XT, but hadn’t set up any of the screens for the bike. So in the first 10 miles of the bike, when safe, I went through the menus and set up the screens a little so I could have some useful info; HR, Cadence, 3S Power and Lap Power. Stuck with that, even though it was a pain to see. The 112 mile bike was 3 laps, about 37 miles each.
The first lap I felt like I was flying (granted, the bike portion is usually my strength, and coming out of the water around 1000th, I had a lot of people ahead of me) – I used some legal drafting as I passed my way up. I stuck to my cadence and almost to my power goal. Throughout the whole bike I stayed quite a bit below my power goal. Not quite sure why. I was very happy with my speed and time, well ahead of my anticipated time, but I couldn’t hold the power I wanted to. But I figured that was ok. Keep the cadence up and save the legs – still had a marathon to do later. As the first lap ended, I was surprised how fast it went by. I saw my wife and dad at the turnaround yelling their heads off. I smiled and went on.
The second lap started much the same, but once we got to the Beeline Highway, the wind had shifted. The first lap it was a slight head wind out (uphill) and slight tailwind back (downhill) which made for a fast return. This time the wind was a little helpful uphill, but seemed to slow the pace a lot downhill. So be it. Nothing much eventful happened. Kept passing people, fewer this time. Finished the 2nd lap and saw there was a wreck near the median around ASU stadium. I heard it was a motorcycle that collided with a cyclist and needed to be taken away in an ambulance – a real bummer – I hope the rider is doing well. I saw my dad and even pointed out to him his sign was upside down, and went off on the third lap.
The third lap started to feel loooooong. I concentrated on getting to the turnaround, because at that point mentally it was just one final return and it would be over. On the third lap I rode with about 5 or 6 other guys changing places. We rode clean, no drafting, which was good. I saw some people drafting a bit, but nothing horrible. Though it’s pretty obvious when 3 riders in the same kit come flying by… The penalty tents definitely had some crowds, particularly the first lap so I guess the marshals were out there. Eventually that third lap came to a close and I was stoked with my bike split, even though that 3rd lap was a bit slow and under powered.
I finished in 5:08:53 which moved me up to 57th in my age group, about 21.76mph for 112 miles. I’m surprised as well. I also managed to pass about 700 people during the bike portion.
Transition 2 – 00:05:58
As I approached the dismount, one of the guys ahead of me fell and laid his bike down dismounting … oops! But they got it up and out of the way as we approached. I got off and was thankful for the bike catchers. And very thankful to be done with the bike. I grabbed my T2 bag without issue (again, kudos to the volunteers for the organization), and headed in to change. Once again I had decided to change fully. So I got into run shorts, run shirt, put on clean dry socks, got my run shoes and visor and headed out. Applied some more sunscreen and set off on the run.
The Run – 26.2 Miles – 4:09:21
Heading out on the run I couldn’t believe how quickly the bike portion had gone by, and even the swim for that matter. Here I was almost 7 hours into the race and it seemed to have flown by. It was all beginning to be so surreal.
My plan for the run was to go out at 8:30ish pace for the first 3 miles, assess, and go from there. In the first mile I went out at what I though was easy but was surprised to see 8:00 pace on my watch. I reeled it back forcing myself to slow down, but it was tough. My legs and body were happy to be off the bike and wanted to go! I kept reminding myself how long 26.2 miles is (though remembering I’ve never run more than 22 in my life) and kept that pace in check. Early on I decided to take water and cola every aid station and add a gel every 3 miles. So that’s what I did – basically the whole run, though I did add in Perform halfway through.
The first thing that caught my eye when starting the run was a sign that read “18 miles” – of course, that was for the 3rd lap, and I tried to grasp how long it would be until that sign was for me. Like the bike, the run was 3 laps – about 8.7 miles each.
I started running, and was shocked to catch and pass people walking already. They were on their first lap for sure, I felt for them because it would be a long day. At least 3 of them were guys I was riding with on the bike. 3 miles into the run I saw my dad cheering on the side again so I stopped and high fived him. 100 feet later I saw my mom and my daughter so I stopped and gave my daughter a kiss.
One hour into the run, I was still running at 8:30 pace. I had done just over 7 miles and still felt pretty good. I took my water, cola, gels in stride without stopping and trucked onward. My coach had told me the hardest part of the run were miles 8 – 23 and I was approaching that point. At the end of the first lap I darted into a porta potty, the bladder was full. It was the first time I had stopped since T2. I got out quick and ran off. For the next 6 miles or so I still ran about 8:30-9:00 pace, but now I walked through the aid stations. It was difficult to get the drinks/gels down while running. So my mile splits fell to about 9:05 or so. Had no problems with that. Just kept chugging along. There was one hill in the back, and I made it a point to run up it every lap, but on this second lap I noted that the 23 mile marker was at the top of it. Oh how I longed to be on my last lap and seeing that sign. I kept the image of that sign in my head every mile until I got there again…
I finished my second lap feeling pretty good still, but it had definitely gotten harder 14 miles in. I had felt like taking some walking breaks, but wouldn’t allow it. I talked myself into believing that “maybe at the next mile marker I’ll walk a little, but now…” On the third lap, that 18 mile marker sign was finally meant for me. I loved it. I remembered a quote from Chrissie Wellington about not worrying about how much you have left, but how far you’ve already come. I thought about it. 2.4 mile swim. 112 mile bike. And now 18 miles into a marathon. Unbelievable.
Around 20 miles I saw my wife and both kids, my parents. Gave them all high fives and kisses. My wife asked if this was it… Sadly no, still had 10km to go. But I’ve already gone 20 miles! Woot! The last 10k was a mental struggle to keep moving (“Everyday I’m shuff-ff-ff-ling”). I did spend a bit more time in aid stations, really make sure to not fall apart. Some sponges to cool off, coke, water, ice. More and more people were walking and when I took the occassional walk break, I noticed they were walking much faster than me. There was no way I would walk my way to the end so I just kept running. My longer aid station stretches, plus my slowing pace, had me at about 10:30/mi pace. As I crested that back climb and saw that 23 mile marker sign, the sun was starting to set (sunset was at 5:24PM, which would have been 10:24 into the race). With just over a 5km to go, I figured my best case scenario of 10:30 was out of reach, but I still had a chance at sub 11 if I could maintain 11:00/mi to the end. So that was my new goal. Descents started to hurt though – not just my quads, but my toes. I figured my toes had some bruising going on. I didn’t feel any blisters, and my shoes were dry. I would worry about it later. The last 5km were heads down just jogging on. I skipped the last aid station, since with 1 mile to go, there wasn’t much that would help now. My 26th mile was a 9:36, and the last 0.2 was at 8:39.
As I approached the last directional sign, splitting those with more laps to go to the right, and finishers to the left, I was surprised at how alone I was. No one that close in front or behind. Most of the crowd had more laps to go. I ran the last few hundred yards alone in the dark (though I did see Brian Hughes of Fast Splits on the side, yelling at me to hurry up and get in sub-11!). Then I saw another friend, Angela Magnerelli, yelling on the side, and I was elated. I rounded the last corner and saw the finish. The clock read 10:53 and I couldn’t believe it. This was it. I was done. Sub 11. The crowd was awesome. The cheering fantastic. Mike Reilly announcing that I had done it, that I am an Ironman. Wow. What a long day.
My official time was 10:53:41. 63rd in my age group and 359th overall (some fast people out there…). An all around success for my first Ironman. But it does leave plenty of opportunity for improvement.
Looking back on the day. It was definitely the hardest day of my life. But at the same time, it flew by. It was surreal. Did I really do this? I stayed up until 1 or 2 am thinking about it (jacked up on all the caffeine I ingested on the run….). After I crossed the finish, I waited a minute to turn off my watch (no one wants a finisher photo stopping their watch, right?). 2 volunteers grabbed me as if I would collapse? Would I? No way. Not today. I felt great! I got my finisher medal. I got my finisher photo taken. I walked into the finisher area and sat down. I drank a couple of chocolate milks and my family came over. After 30 minutes or so, I got back on my (now hurting and stiff) legs and got my gear and bike and headed back to the hotel.