Un-freakin’-real: Ironman Arizona 2012

Not even sure where to begin, other than this was the most fantastic, and in many ways unexpected, Ironman race I’ve ever had: Sometimes numbers don’t tell the story, but in the case of my race, they do:

  • 22-minute Ironman PR, 18-minute bike PR
  • 3rd in M50-54, my highest Ironman age group placing ever (previous best was 10th)
  • 60th out of the water in the age group, 7th off the bike, 3rd at the finish
  • 3rd fastest bike and run splits in the age group
  • 3rd and final Kona slot in the age group 🙂

To say that I’m stoked is an understatement. This was a breakthrough race for me – all the training I did the past few years, especially the bike emphasis I had this entire year, paid off big time: I’m finally “one of those fast guys” in Ironman that I never really believed I would become.

Oh, and did I mention I qualified for Kona?

So here’s how it went:

Pre-Race

My training was really solid once I recovered from Ironman St. George back in May. I got a course PR at the 70.3 Hawaii race and started adding long flat rides in the summer, starting with just over 90 miles and then going to the full 112. This was done with my crew: Mikey was a constant, and on most rides we were also joined by our teammates Eric and Derrick — the Team Sheeper IMAZ crew. Derrick, Mike and I also did a three-day Palo Alto-Santa Barbara tour along the coast, which was not only an incredible experience (picture-perfect weather), but showed me that I had both power and the endurance to hold it. My last 112-mile flat ride in the South Bay was at an average power of 205 watts, which still allowed me to run well afterwards. This was about 10 watts higher than I held in my last IMAZ in 2010, where I went 5:22 on the bike, so I felt as though I had a 5:10 in me. My race plan was to do about a 1:10 swim, 5:10 bike, and (and this was the big longshot) 3:25 run. With transitions included, this would put me in the 9:5x range. Factoring in a more likely 3:3x run, it was going to be close to make it under 10 hours, but anything under 10:26 would be a PR.

I felt really good on race week and was raring to go. The only mental demons I had to overcome were the weight of my own expectations — being fit is one thing, but executing on race day is another — and the nightmare scenarios going through my mind about the swim start. In my experience, IMAZ has been a rough swim, and this year wasn’t going to be helped by having almost 3000 athletes in the water at the same time. Still, race morning inevitably came, and Mikey and I headed into the water together to try and watch one another’s backs for as much of the swim as we could.

Swim

I lined up as far to the left as I could; I like having an escape route, if only for peace of mind. The paddleboarders were trying to get a bunch of us to move right, but there was no way that was going to happen — too crowded. So they let us be, and soon the gun sounded. I was a couple of rows back from the line, but got off surprisingly well in terms of very little physical contact. I lost sight of Mikey immediately, though — when you’re a middle-of-the-pack swimmer, you’re surrounded pretty quickly, so it’s every man for himself. My strategy was to keep to the left as much as the paddleboarders allowed, and that kept me in pretty clear water, though of course I didn’t have fast feet to swim behind either. But I will take that over constant pummeling any day — for me, the point of the swim is to get through it without expending a ton of energy. The only scrums came at the turn buoys, but people weren’t out to kill one another, so it was as good as it was going to be when you have tons of people cutting the tangents and trying to swim in the same space.

The way out to the buoys seemed to be faster than the return — I kept seeing the Mill Ave Bridge, but didn’t seem to be getting closer to it very quickly. I finally reached the stairs and took at peek at my watch. Ugh, five minutes slower than plan, but probably what I deserved. Grade: B-

T1

IMAZ has wetsuit strippers, so I was down on the carpet quickly while the peeler did his work. I noticed my legs were a little crampy — I had been getting a few twinges towards the end of the swim. Wetsuit now off, I ran down to the bag area, got my bag and sat down on some grass outside the changing tent. Shoes on, sleeves on, helmet, sunglasses and race belt. Found my bike and headed out, and I got to the mount line right behind Mikey. Grade: B

Bike

I was very quickly in the groove on the bike. My power didn’t feel that great at first, but my speed was good and I was passing a lot of riders very quickly. I tried to get some fluids and a salt tablet in me once I got past the first series of turns and bunches of riders — the swim depletes you more than you think. I spent the better part of the first loop getting past lone fast swimmers and one or two packs — I’d call them “drafting packs,” but I don’t believe most people were intentionally drafting. It’s just hard to avoid bunching up when you have that many athletes on the course at the same time. The uphill on Beeline Highway also had a headwind on the first loop, so that made it a little easier to get past people; I just increased the power from around 210 watts to 240, and that put me past the packs. The ensuing downhill/tailwind did wonders for my average speed and let my legs relax a little — I was still pedaling but without as much tension in the legs. I noticed that my average speed was north of 22 mph, a first for me. It was my first inkling that this was going to be a faster ride than I had planned. I completed the first loop in 1:40:58, and headed back out.

This time, there were many fewer cyclists on the road, other than the ones I would catch later on in the loop that were a lap behind. I stopped to get my “special needs bag” around mile 60 — it had a bottle of my custom Infinit drink mix in it. On this loop, the wind had shifted to be somewhat of a headwind on the downhill back into town, but again my average speed hovered at 22.3 mph or so. There were a few riders I was trading the occasional place with, not in any organized fashion or anything. I remember being near a guy in Purplepatch kit near the end of the loop, which I reached in 1:41:43 (pretty much the same time as loop 1 if you count my stop for my special needs bag), and I rode away from him as I started the third and final loop.

Remember how you have a plan, and then stuff happens? At the next aid station, disaster struck — I missed several water bottles, and a well-meaning volunteer placed the water bottle at exactly the wrong place, and my thumb bent backwards very painfully. I thought for a few minutes I had broken it (I later realized it was just strained), but the immediate effect was a loss of concentration and of use of the hand. I couldn’t squeeze the bottle with it for awhile, so I switched to my left hand in order to get fluids in me. Near the top of the climb, I decided to get some calories in me, but the painful hand was making it difficult. At this point, the familiar figure of my teammate Mimi went by me, saying something that I couldn’t understand. I followed her into the turnaround, and on the ensuing downhill after the aid station, I re-passed her and turned on the gas. It’s funny how teammates have that effect on you more than random competitors you don’t know, but it was a needed kick in the pants. 🙂

I was setting all sorts of personal bests along the way — 100 miles in just under 4:31, 110 miles in under 5 hours — and I was still feeling great as I rolled into T2 in 5:04:27 with a last loop of 1:41:02 (I know the numbers don’t add up, but I must have started my bike computer a little after I got on the bike). Anyway, here’s a screenshot of the TrainingPeaks file:

Grade: A+

T2

I executed a pretty good dismount thanks to my easy-in-easy-out Specialized bike shoes. My first barefoot strides off of the bike were gingerly, but I hurried to my bag and into the changing tent, dumped the contents, put socks and shoes on, and grabbed my visor and container of salt caplets. Volunteers applied sunscreen to my shoulders and neck, and I decided a quick visit to the port-a-potty was in order. I entered the run course the soonest I had ever done so: less than 6 hours, 30 minutes into the race. That meant if I could run a 3:30 flat or faster, I would go sub 10. Grade: A-

Run

I felt awesome at the beginning of the run and went out in a 7:02 first mile. “Too fast,” I told myself, so I settled in to a 7:30 pace. Coming down a slight grade towards an aid station, my hamstring cramped, so I walked the aid station, got a salt caplet and some fluids in, and started running again. I was able to hold a nice pace for quite a while, seeing my support crew Greg and Alexa coming down off the Mill Ave Bridge after mile 3. The photo they took makes me look (a) fast and (b) as though there’s no one else around. It is true that the number of runners around me was the smallest I had ever experienced in a race; I guess that’s what a quick bike split will do for you.

I held around 7:30 pace for quite a while (I hit mile 8 in under 1:01) but gradually my pace slowed into the 8s. Hit the half marathon right at 1:41 and needed a 1:49 second half to just dip under 10 hours (if the math I was doing in my head was correct).

I couldn’t do it — I was running on the edge of cramping for quite a while, so couldn’t stride out like I wanted to. It was survival mode. I continued to take sports drink, water, sponges and Coke at pretty much every aid station, which kept me going. I knew, though, that I no longer had the leg speed to go under 10, but I knew that my time would be good if I could just hold it together.

I had no idea what place I was in or anything — in fact, I had no idea the entire race. I was just trying to execute my plan; the placing was up to the other competitors. 🙂 In the final mile, a guy came up on my left and asked how close we were to 10. I said it was close, but only if you have a lot left. He took off in what passed for a surge at that point (neither of us was moving that fast), and I looked at my watch and saw 9:57:xx. But there was still some ground to cover.

Finally I saw the blessed sight of the left hand turn towards the finish, which leads you out through what looks like a Hollywood backlot and onto a main road (where I spotted Greg and Alexa), then finally a left into the last 100 yards of finishing chute. I was absolutely ecstatic — I did some exaggerated arm movements as I hurried down the chute, high-fiving a few kids and putting an exclamation on a race that had gone almost perfectly. 10:04:24 was a new Ironman PR by over 22 minutes, and my run split of 3:35:42 was my 2nd-fastest Ironman marathon. Grade: A

Aftermath

After I got my medal and space blanket, I reunited with Greg and Alexa, who told me I had gotten 3rd in the age group. I was speechless. I had never made the podium before — frankly, it had never crossed my mind that that would be a by-product of that kind of finish time. I just never saw myself as “one of those podium guys” in an event as competitive as an Ironman.

Then people started asking me via text and Facebook about whether I got a Kona slot, and I thought I probably had but couldn’t confirm for sure. We did have to wait until the next morning to confirm it by going down to the registration area — that’s where I saw the magic list with numbers of slots per age group. Quick scan to M50-54: 3! Kona, baby!

I don’t know if I can ever duplicate this performance or experience. I’m certainly going to try, though. 🙂

No day like this ever happens on your own. There are so many to thank, but first and foremost my incredible support crew of Greg and Alexa, who got me through both St. George and Arizona this year. Also my “Garage of Pain” training buddy Mikey, who got into incredible shape this year and deserved a much better day in Tempe. To our long-ride cohorts Mimi, Derrick and Eric, I guess we know the route to Hollister better than anyone now. There are also some incredibly strong Team Sheeper teammates who inspire me to try to be as good as them (I’m not): Lennard, Jess, Vaagn, I’m coming for you. 🙂 Pierre and Wingman, bury the Lance hatchet and join me on a ride again — I miss you guys. Tim Sheeper, thank you for reminding me to be a warrior. TrainingPeaks, thanks for the software you make and for believing in me to represent you for another year. And finally, Jeanne, who puts up with this strange endurance sports lifestyle I have and is the one I’m most happy to share any meager success with.

Image Gallery

One Comment

  1. Great report, it is so fantastic when THE PLAN really works, you earned with many long and focused training sessions.

    Reply

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