Saturday, January 30, 2016

Ironman Arizona Race Report - Chapter 1: Don't Drown

I could write an incredibly awesome blog about how I got to Ironman Arizona (aka – the Epic Road Trip with my Dad) – but for now, I know people really want to read about my race experience…so I might fill in details about the trip in a follow-up series of blogs (likely sometime in the next millennium).

In other words….just pretend you know everything that happened on my journey prior to race day. Like skipping over the beginning of the book or movie and going straight to the climactic scene. Not that I’d ever recommend doing that!

Bike ramp leading into Tempe Beach Park

The calm before the storm

My hotel (Hampton Inn on Scottsdale Road) arranged to have breakfast available from 4:30am for everyone on race day. I decided that rather than worry about getting to the race site right when transition opened, I’d just eat my normal breakfast and then get there when I got there. Having dropped my bags and bike off the day before, there really wasn’t much for me to do to ‘prepare’ on race day other than to check my tires and make sure my Speedfil was full. I didn’t want to be wandering around in the cold for 2 hours before the race start.

So I got up around 4:30am, rolled out of bed and went downstairs with my Dad to get breakfast. Needless to say, I stuck to my standard race day fare: A bagel with peanut butter,  and a coffee (Nothing new on race day!). To be honest, it was nice to have some time to sip my coffee, eat and watch other people getting ready for the long day ahead. It was the calm before the storm if you will.

Not that I was particularly calm. I am pretty sure my hands were shaking as I slathered peanut better on my bagel – but I was excited and confident about the day to come.

When we got outside, it was chilly (Around 50F/10C) but dry. Thankfully, I knew how cold it was going to be from watching three friends race last year, so I was dressed well in warm-up pants, long sleeved shirt and jacket. We drove to the race site and managed to get a great parking spot just across from Tempe Beach Park. Thanks to my dad for scouting the lot out in advance.

My dad took some start-of-the-day pictures and then we were off to transition. I had all my swim stuff with me, not to mention my special needs bags. I’d rechecked my bags the night before so I knew I had everything I had planned to bring (e.g. a spare pairs of goggles, bike pump, extra nutrition, etc.).

Starting the day with a smile!

In fact, I was pretty sure I was prepared for anything that might come my way.

Aside: You can’t see me, but I’m laughing out loud as I write this.

It was really dark in transition, so I was glad I didn’t have much to do when I arrived around 5:30am. Mostly, I just had to give my bike a once over. If you’re wondering what I did….I:

·         Put water in my Speedfil – This was easy. I just filled it from a 1.5L water bottle I brought with me. My Camelbak had my Carbo-Pro mix in it.

·         Check my bento box – I double checked that the zipper was working and that everything was still there. It was full of 4 bags of Honey Stinger Chews (already out of the package so I could eat them easily), and a couple of gels I could take if I ever stopped (I can’t eat gels on the go yet).

·         Put my spare Garmin on my handlebars – I came up with this idea after dealing with not 1, but 2 half-ironman races where my watch refused to work. Figured with a spare, I’d be covered even if my Garmin 920 decided to fail me.

·         Pump my tires up – This was surprisingly hard to do since the bikes were so tight on the rack. But luckily I was right by the bike mechanic so I used their fence to rest my bike so I had more space.

·         Make sure I was in the right gear – This was mostly a wild guess. I knew I’d be in a crowd leaving transition, so I went with something easy, but enough to give me a little resistance so I’d get going quickly. If I recall, it was toward the end of the lower ring – one shift before I’d probably switch to the big ring.

All in all, this took me a maximum of 10 minutes. Not long at all. I gave my bike pump back to my Dad – and then it was time to say goodbye. I got my Dad a VIP pass for the day, so he headed off to find the VIP swim tent, while I got to look for the portapotties!

The line for the loo was pretty long, but I had plenty of time. After I made it through the line and did my business, it was time to get my wetsuit on and drop off my morning clothes bag (i.e. all the stuff I’d lugged with me to the race and that I’d likely want to put on again when I crossed the finish line).

Wetsuit on, I looked around and found a refreshment table with plenty of water. While it was supposed to be for people to drink, I took one of the jugs and poured some of it into my wetsuit.

That may sound weird, but my coach recommended once (before the Toronto Triathlon Festival – in Lake Ontario) that when you have to swim in cold water, getting wet before getting in the water makes the shock easier since you have time for the water closest to your skin to warm up. I am sure I got some funny looks – but trust me, it did help!

From there, I made my way to the swim entrance, where people were already starting to gather.

Ironman Arizona: Swim

This was the first year that IMAZ had a rolling start.

I admit that the rolling start took a fair bit of my nerves about the swim away since it would be a self-seeded start where you could pick when you entered the water. In my mind, this was a lot better than a mass start with 2,500 of my closest friends – even though I’m a reasonably good swimmer.

I get this kind of start sucks for people who might be vying for a Kona slot (since you don’t know when your competition will start and ‘first to the finish’ may not actually win you the race), but for average racers, the time trial start can make for an easier start to the day. And it did – at least for me.

That’s not to say I didn’t contemplate where to start. As I wound my way through the later seeded groups toward the front, it seemed that most of the people were in the 1:15 and up sections. Now, I figured I could swim around 1:13-1:15 on a perfect day – but I also knew that people would likely be seeding up (i.e. going a bit ahead of where they would actually swim) and I didn’t want to have to swim over people if I could help it.

Given the 1:10 and up area had a lot less people, I decided to seed myself to the left of the 1:10 sign. I figured the time wasn’t completely unreasonable if I found a good draft and swam a good line – and I’d probably have more space to swim than if I started later.

It was a perfect choice in hindsight.

Before I seeded myself, I did a few stretches to warm up while looking out onto Tempe Town Lake. The water was calm, only a flicker of lights bobbing on the water from people in kayaks and boats. As I was standing there, I got caught by one of the race photographers. I think that’s a first for me. I rarely get pictures from before the swim unless they’re taken by friends and family.

Waiting for the sunrise!

The sky lightened very quickly. It was much cloudier than I expected. But the clouds didn't look too bad and it wasn't windy, so I wasn't worried.  On the positive side, I knew I wouldn't have to swim right into the glare of the sun.

Once it got brighter out, I vaguely recall they played the American national anthem...People cheered, but it was like I was hearing it from a distance. It was almost surreal. I distinctly heard Mike Reilly say in the loudspeaker, “You are going to be an Ironman today!” And I grinned.

Here's a fantastic picture of the transition area and people in the swim corral corridor. I think it's from the Ironman Arizona Facebook Page...but I really don't know. All I know is it is an astonishing view!

Aerial view of the transition area - before the start

When the cannon (I think it was a cannon – I just know it was loud) went off for the pro men’s race, I jumped. Then the pro women started.

I started my watch so I wouldn’t have to worry about it. I didn’t want it failing me – and didn’t care about an extra minute or two on my time.

 What seemed like seconds later, the gun went off for the Age Group Start.

Time of day: 6:50am. Ironman Arizona had begun!

We were funneled into the water very quickly. I found myself going down the entry leftmost entry steps quickly by safely. My plan was to swim left toward the buoy line, knowing the wall curved and not wanting to swim too much extra.

 In hindsight, I swam too far left at first, but at least I had pretty clear water to swim in.

My Dad's view of the swim start!
I jumped in Tempe Town Lake, put my head down and started swimming. I had decided the day before to get a few minutes into the swim before I took stock and decided if I needed to stop to adjust my goggles or anything. Thankfully, I didn't need to.

The swim itself was a million times easier than Barrelman in September. Despite starting near the front (relatively…still far back from the really fast swimmers), I didn’t get any hard knocks, nor did I have a girl trying to clobber me intentionally.

I got into a nice rhythm pretty quickly. I felt strong. I admit, mentally, I spent a lot of the first half wondering when I’d hit the turn around, but think that was more nervous energy, excitement and needing to calm down.  I had some decent drafting opportunities, which I took – and also found plenty of people drafting off me.

At different times during the swim, I realized that I wasn’t swimming the best line. I was sighting well – but I don’t think I actually had a good sense of what the fastest line was. I thought I knew it going in, but in the water, it was tough to know if I was there or not.

This was especially true on the way back from the turnaround….I know I swam much wider than I had to. But hey, if I ever do the race again, I have a much better sense of where things are and what I should have sighted on the trip down and then back up the course. Certainly on the way back, I should have been sighting one spot on the bridge, rather than the buoys.

But all in all, I felt great in the water. It was a perfect temperature for a long swim.  By the time I closed in on the twin bridges right before the last turn to the finish, I could sense I was finishing in a really good time.  

The turn toward the stairs was one of the easiest parts of the day because I’d scoped out the sight line the day before. I just put my head down and swam directly to the stairs, sighting occasionally. I tried to shake my legs out a bit as I went, which might have looked a bit funny if someone had an underwater camera…but fortunately no one did.

On the funny side, I didn’t see my dad as I came out of the water – and later, he said that he didn’t see me (not surprising given what a zoo it was). Yet, when I looked at one of the swim exit pictures he posted on Facebook as I was writing this blog….I realized he actually caught me on camera right before I went up the stairs!  That’s me in the pink cap with the purple goggles!
Don't trip on the stairs. Don't trip on the stairs.

I took my time going up the steps (a process I’d practiced the day before) and had no issues. There were a million people yelling and cheering. It was amazing.

As I walked away from the swim exit I looked at my watch- which I somehow managed to pause partway through the swim (surprise, surprise!). This moment was kindly caught for posterity by the race photographers. I was smiling because even though my swim time wasn't completely captured, I saw it was only just after 8am. I was thrilled!
What time is it?
Here is a wider view of the swim exit - you can see me to the left still looking at my watch. I really like the view though since it gives you a great feel for the atmosphere of the swim exit.

Swim exit - so exciting!
I hit start, switched to transition mode, then jogged quickly out of the swim exit area, pulling down the top of my wetsuit as I went. A few steps later, I was ushered into the wetsuit stripping station. Before I knew it, I was lying on the ground, two volunteers peeled off my wetsuit in about 2 seconds then helped me up and sent me on my way, wetsuit in hand. It was awesome!

Lessons Learned on the Swim

Sighting on such a long course when the things around you are awkwardly shaped (the edge of the lake curved)  was harder than I expected because I couldn’t see far enough down the course to really tell if I was taking the quickest route (I could only see a buoy or two at a time.  I don’t know that I could’ve done much differently since we were only allowed to swim part of the course the day before. Really, it was the experience of swimming the course that gave me the knowledge that I could use to swim a better route next time.

But hey – I was still more than happy with my swim time – especially the fact that I felt good coming out of the water!

Total Swim time: 1:16:45 (A lot less time than it took to write this blog)
Rank: 26/120 AG, 180/765 women, 865/2,676 overall

Next up: The bike!

Ironman Arizona Race Report: The Prelude

In the world of blog-posting, my Ironman Arizona Race Report is going to be Epic. In fact, I could probably write a book on the subject (and I have debated it).

Of course, by the time I'm finished this blog post it might be the length of a book. Sorry in advance.

Now, like any book - the question is where do I begin?
Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away...
Oh wait, that's been taken.
It was a dark and stormy night...
Um, nope, not really.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...
That's pushing it.
Once upon a time...
Sure, let's go with that.
Once upon a time (also known as pre-February 2012)...
...the only Ironman I knew of was Robert Downey Jr.
He is Ironman
But then one day, a couple of months after I started my journey toward becoming fit, I read a book called, “Can’t Swim, Can’t Bike, Can’t Run – From Common Man to Ironman.” The funny thing is that I read this book by happenstance – when I tripped over one stair on a cruise ship me and ended up on crutches the entire trip. Because I couldn’t do much that week, I ended up taking this book out of the ship’s library along with “Born to Run.”
In hindsight maybe reading that book was fate.

At the time, I read the book for what it was: a hilarious take on the triathlon journey. I didn’t even know how to ride a bike at the time – but I did wonder what it would take to do something as crazy as swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and then run a marathon (26.2 miles).

I could barely wrap my head around those distances. I was still terrified about the prospect of running my first race – a 10k run 3 months in the future.

And yet, looking back, I admit now that there was a tiny part of me – even then – that wondered, ‘What if? Because really, if I could make the decision and commitment to become fit – how much harder could it be to do an Ironman?  

Insert maniacal laugher here

Needless to say, after doing my first beginner triathlon (after prompting from my brother) later that summer on a borrowed mountain bike, I realized just how incredibly insane the guy in the book must have been to do a race something like 100x longer. I couldn’t imagine doing it myself.
Loaring Beginner Triathlon - July 2012

Yet, the seed of the idea was planted, buried in my back brain. And anyone who knows me won’t be surprised that the seed grew.

Fast forward to September 2013

When I finished my first marathon in September 2013 after a summer of doing sprint and Olympic distance triathlons (which I loved), the Ironman cropped back up in my mind.
By this point, I’d met plenty of people through the Toronto Triathlon Club who had done Ironman races, but I didn't really imagine that I could do it.
Until I finished the Run for Heroes Marathon. When I crossed that finish line smiling, I realized I could do far more than I'd ever thought possible.
World Alzheimer's Day Run for Heroes Marathon - Sept. 2013
Shortly thereafter, I signed up for my first half ironman a year to the day after my first marathon. I thought that if I could finish that, then maybe - just maybe – I could do an Ironman.

Over the next year, I read every book and blog I could find on the subject – which is something I always do when I get interested in a topic. As part of my reading, I read “You are an Ironman” -- a book about 6 people training to do Ironman Arizona.
From reading that book (and subsequently all the race blogs I could find), I realized that Arizona had a lake swim, an untechnical bike course, and a mostly flat run. Even better, it was in the desert so it would be hot and dry during the day, but cool at night for the run.

As a first race, I realized I couldn’t choose any better. Good for me as a terrible biker…and good for my asthma because of the dry heat.

Insert maniacal laughter here. Anyone who knows what the race day turned out to be like will understand

A few months later, my friend Paula, who I’d met at the LPC Florida Triathlon Camp, mentioned signing up for Ironman Arizona.

“How awesome is that?” I thought. Now I had a good excuse to go down and watch/volunteer for the race – even if I decided not to sign up that year for 2015. I figured I’d eventually sign up, so either way it would be a great trip. Plus I could see and cheer on a friend!

I spent the whole summer telling people I wasn’t committing to signing up for IMAZ until after Barrelman. I don’t know how many people believed me – but trust me, it was true. I was fully of the mind that I didn’t want to sign up until I was confident (well, mostly) that I could do it.

Of course, then I finished Barrelman with a smile, feeling good and like I could have kept going.
Niagara Falls Barrelman - Sept. 2014

The rest was history. That November, I signed up for the longest race of my life: a race I couldn’t even fathom just a couple of years earlier.
I was going to do an Ironman.