I’ve had a poor Ironman streak of late. The astute reader will recall a disastrous attempt at a Kona/Arizona double last year; it took all I could muster (plus two IV bags in the med tent) to get through Kona, and then I basically had nothing left— either mentally or physically — for Arizona, where I got my first DNF that wasn’t planned (Tahoe 2013 *was* planned, since it was 3 weeks prior to Kona that year). I almost blew it at Oceanside, then DNF’d at Honu after I injured my foot the day before the race, then redeemed myself with a 70.3 PR at Vineman, but DNF’d again by being unable to get through the rough surf at the Superfrog 70.3. Three DNFs in less than a year. Not good. Add to that an ill-advised last-minute decision to enter Ironman Coeur d’Alene in August, where I started cramping at mile 75 of the bike and ended up with a personal worst Ironman finish (but a finish nonetheless), and I am looking at a very poor 2016 — except for Vineman.
With that backdrop, Ironman Arizona, the venue where I’ve had my four fastest Ironman times ever, loomed. People asked me what my goal was, and as I always say, Kona qualification is nice but not the outcome by which I measure myself, since it involves not only my race but the luck of the draw of who else shows up. I am not a naturally talented triathlete; I suck at the swim (relative to my swim and bike), and I’ve had to work really hard on my bike to bring it to the level of my run. In certain ways my run has actually suffered of late. Yet I had enough solid training sessions coming into Arizona to suggest that if I executed properly on race day I could go sub 10 hours. That — for me — is the holy grail, and at age 54 I am running out of time to be able to do it.
Arizona has moved from a mass start to what Ironman calls a “rolling start,” which means that swimmers enter the water a few at a time according to their projected swim time. This worked well for me last year when it was first instituted, but this year it was even better due to more restrictive funneling of athletes into the start. I think I had two, maybe three, incidences of any contact whatsoever, as opposed to the constant pummeling I was used to in this race. Anyway, this allowed me to get into an efficient swim rhythm from the get-go, and I exited the water right at 1:10, a PR for me in Arizona by 90 seconds or so, and that’s on not very much swim volume (but my trusty Vasa swim ergometer). One discipline down, two to go!
Out on the bike I felt really good — power was right on target and I was catching a lot of folks who were either faster swimmers or had seeded themselves further up in the starting corral. While the wind had been calm at the swim venue, it was definitely blowing as we got out of town, with the pattern of headwind/uphill in the first half of each of three loops and tailwind/downhill in the second half. This meant going as slow as 15 mph in some of the “out” sections and as fast as 34 mph in some of the “back” sections. I hit my first loop in 1:40 and change, which was what I had done in 2012 when I rode 5:04, so I was on a decent pace. Normalized power at that point was 193W — right on target.
The second loop continued in the same vein, though my stop for the “special needs” bag was a comedy of errors in which the guy with my bag ran ahead of me to the end of the dropoff zone while I was waiting near the volunteers who were stationed around where my numbered bag should have been. It seemed like it was an eternity until the guy came running back with my bag. I had put a few Glukos gels and a bottle of Skratch Labs in there, which is what I had trained with, so I was counting on the familiar nutrition more than making up for the time lost. The second loop was 1:41 including the stop, with a normalized power of 186W, so still in the range considering the stop.
The third loop was where things started to fall apart. I couldn’t sustain the same power that I had been riding before (and had ridden a number of times in training), and then the leg cramps started around mile 85. These were in the adductors, where I’ve been having lots of tightness worked our weekly by my ART specialist, and I am suspecting that my saddle might be a tad high — something to rectify in the off-season. Standing out of the saddle sometimes helped, but I couldn’t put a lot of pressure on the pedals without triggering more cramping, so my power numbers took a nosedive. On the plus side, once I made it up the hill to the turnaround at mile 93 or so, it was mostly downhill/tailwind back to T2, so I could coast some and try to let me legs recover. I’d been on 5:03 pace but ended up at 5:11, so that third loop was costly. And definitely not the textbook “build the power slightly each loop” execution I’d had in 2012 and 2014 when I qualified for Kona here.
All hope of a sub 10 wasn’t completely lost — I exited T2 at slightly less than 6:30 on my race clock, so “all” I needed to do was run 3:30 – basically 8:00/mile pace. Riiiiiiiight…
Things weren’t bad to start; I was right on pace and it didn’t feel hard. But I got my first leg cramp in mile 2, which portended ill for the rest of the day. I waited for them to subside and then picked up where I left off, making sure to take in fluids at the aid stations along with my Succeed caps. I’ve found in the past that my body can catch up on fluid/electrolyte depletion, but it takes time. It was on again, off again like that for the rest of the first loop, but at the halfway point I was just over 1:50 in so was still looking at a 3:4x marathon and a low 10-hour overall time.
Just after halfway came the “special needs” bag for the run, in which I had a couple of Glukos gels and a HotShot – the hot pepper liquid that’s supposed to attack cramps at the nerve. I had taken one on the bike, which seemed to help, so I figured a second one might help me avoid the intermittent quad and hamstring cramps I was experiencing. I downed the little bottle and started running again, but didn’t get very far before I realized I was about to be sick to my stomach. That HotShot was not sitting well with me; I’ll spare the reader the details other than to say the next thing I knew, both legs were full-on cramping in seemingly every muscle. I was motionless just waiting for them to stop seizing up. Finally I was able to walk some, and then I started getting really cold. I looked at my race kit, and everything — shirt, shorts — was caked with white salt streaks. I was shivering and my hands were turning blue. I toyed with the idea of asking for a ride back from the mile 15 aid station and going straight to the med tent, but that would have ended my day and given me yet another DNF. Not if I could help it!
I made the turnaround without asking for a ride and shivered my way back towards the transition area and mile 17, where my wife Jeanne was. I was trying to figure out my options — the hypothermia was getting worse, and I felt I could likely make it to 17 but not much further without somehow warming up. Then it hit me: my hotel was right around 16.5 miles, just up the hill from the course. I could go there, get the front desk to make me a key, and stand under a hot shower for as long as it took to warm up. Then I could evaluate my options — continue or DNF. So that’s what I did, as you can see in this map view from TrainingPeaks.
That was 23 minutes incredibly well spent — I was like a new man! I even changed clothes and running shoes, texted Jeanne to let her know what had happened (sadly her phone was dead, though), and made my way back to the course to enter it at exactly the point I had left it.
I was still not completely out of the woods cramp-wise, but I felt much better and was able to go a number of miles without any issue. I even picked it up a little in the last mile to hit the line in 11:27:36, which though almost an hour slower than my slowest time in Arizona is waaayyy better than a DNF.
What made me finish when I was not having the day I planned?
I’d like to think it was my enormous self-discipline and willpower, but as I was walking towards mile 16.5, shivering and feeling sorry for myself, I had several thoughts swirling through my head:
- I’d bought two of the event T-shirts with all the athlete names on the back. How on earth was I going to wear either of them if I DNF’d?
- I was next to a lot of people who were only on their first loop (so 13.1 miles behind me). Surely if they were going to be out for many hours more completing 23 more miles, I could find it in myself to do 10 more miles.
- I tell people all the time that Ironman is like life — when it gets hard, your true character is revealed. What did I want to say about my true character?
Thanks to my wife Jeanne, my friends and teammates for their continued support in this crazy lifestyle I choose to lead.