This race report needs a little context. It really begins more than 3 years ago, with the first IM I did in Boulder. I trained and pushed and was pleased enough with my results in 2014. I was bit by the tri bug and had hopes of bettering my times — signed up for the next year. Then came 2015 and the bike accident in May at HITS in Grand Junction that left me with a subdural hematoma, bleeding on the brain and subsequent dual pulmonary embolisms.

So, when it came to tri training in 2016 – I found I had no interest. When it came to fall of that year,  I was offered the chance to sign up for Ironman Arizona with early tri club entry, I thought this would be a great way to get back in and finish what I started. Closure. Surly, I’d be ready to get back on the bike in a year.

Training:

Nope. In January, a November race date seemed so far away – why train now? Come Spring, I was training for a marathon and I told myself I’d start focusing on the tri afterwards. I even did a sprint tri on my birthday in June to see if I could even get a little excited. Not really.

I distracted myself by semi-training for the Ascent, which was the third week of August, so tri training – particularly on the bike – continued to suffer as an August 3rd Boulder 70.3 race approached. I went into that race thinking it would be my last triathlon and that I’d bail on IMAZ – after all, I was in no way prepared. I was anxious before that race, really anxious, but survived with a few tears on the bike. And after that race, I decided I could do this Ironman – finish what I started. I didn’t have a long time to train, especially since I wouldn’t focus until September…but I booked flights. I was all in.

In my mind I committed to training – but physically, not really. Run-wise, I was tired. I did dutiful long runs, but never went farther than 16 miles prior to this last Sunday’s IM. On the bike, I put in 100 miles a week a few times (that’s over several days, not in one ride) – but I was training for a 112 mile one day ride with a swim before and a run afterwards. This paltry effort really doesn’t cut it.

I just didn’t want to get out on my bike, and when I did – wind, chill, anything – sent me inside to my trainer. The longest ride I did prior to this past Sunday was 70 miles – which was really cobbled together with a spin class, a couple hours on the trainer and 1.5 hours outside.

Swimming I was fine with, but just didn’t feel like committing the time in the pool. I’d do between 1,500 and 2,000 meters mostly twice per week. Before Grant Ranch closed in early September, I did one open water 2.4 miler…and a few weeks ago I did 3,000 meters in the pool, but that’s it for long swims.

In my peak week, my training totaled a whopping 15 hours dedicated to triathlon. Of course, I teach a few weekly classes and do yoga as well – but this training regimen led to a vastly underprepared body when it comes to the rigors of an IM. Twenty plus hours, regularly, is more what it takes. Or at least, it’s the smart thing to do. Yes, it’s a part-time job.

But, then I heard a mantra from Linda Cliatt-Wayman’s Ted Talk about her days as a principal at a failing high school in North Philadelphia. These kids had REAL problems – junkie parents, gang violence, poverty. She approached them with empathy, but also a solid dose of realism. “So what, now what,” was her refrain. So, yes – you’ve got problems, shit has gone down – but are you going to let that define you? What are you going to do to change? She used that approach to turn around three schools labeled “low-performing and persistently dangerous” and inspire hundreds of kids and educators.

So, yes, my training was sh*t, but I’d done that to myself. So what. Now what? How was I going to survive the race?

Race Weekend:

Fast forward to race weekend. The energy of an IM is infectious. It’s a combination of nerves, hormones, muscle and drive. People are nervous, excited, genuinely happy and connected. I checked in Friday and was genuinely excited. It’s fun to be part of something bigger than yourself.

The practice swim in Tempe Town lake on Saturday was definitely worth it – to enter the swim you walk down a set of risers right into deep water to start the swim. The water was cool – 67 – but refreshing and perfect with a wet suit. It’s important to get a feel for that entry, though — takes you a bit by surprise. The practice swim in just 750 yards, but a good reminder of open water swimming and the race to come. Bike check in and bag packing for transitions ensued. I did feel like I brought everything – and packed everything. So, no real nerves that there was a missing piece.

I felt rested going in to the race – I nailed that taper! And, the Saturday afternoon prior to race day was spent lazing in the hotel after the practice swim and a mile bike ride to check gears.

Race morning:

Transition opens at 5am. I arrived around 5:45 and that left me with time on my hands even with packing water and nutrition on the bike, pumping tires and putting on a wet suit. I even had time for an extra visit to the port-o-potty line and a photo with the infamous Mike Reilly.

mike reilly

 

Swim:

In the self-seeded swim, I set up right at the end of the 1:20 group and the beginning of the 1:30 group. We were packed on the dock like sardines with people pushing to get ahead to faster start times. It moved pretty quick to get in the water, and folks spread out fast once on the course. At least for a while.

I did have my share of whacks in the head and kicks to the throat out on the course. When my goggles started to leak about 1,000 meters in, I knew this was not going to be fun. Plus, we were swimming straight into the sun, so I was squinting with one eye closed to keep the mucky water out. I stopped a couple times to dump water from the lens and finally gave up. Swam most of it with my eyes closed. Sometimes I’d find a peaceful space with no bodies – just the chop and churn of the water – but more often than not, someone grabbed my legs or clocked me with their swim stroke in the back of the head. Thankfully, I don’t have anxiety in the water and just roll with the punches (yes, pun intended.)

The swim actually felt like it went pretty fast. I think a lot of that is because the bike was looming large. I finished in 1:32 and change — given my swim prep before the race, I was pleased enough.

Transition was long – the distances were far, and I know I was stalling. Wet suit strippers met me not long after coming up off the stairs, but the run to the tent was a good distance; picked up bags, ensured I had everything and headed to my bike – which was on the other end of the transition area. But, at least I didn’t have to run far with the bike.

Bike:

I clipped in and headed out for the 3-loop course. bike

It’s a fast course…so they say. Not this day. I’d checked the weather in advance as I’d heard the course could be windy – but no more than 7mph predicted. But that weather report was for Phoenix. Not for out on the exposed road. The first 5-7 miles seemed fine and suddenly, we turn, right into a headwind. I hate wind.

This was a brutal headwind – I have no idea how strong, but there were times in that first loop I was going 11 mph. Eleven. I was certain there was no way I’d make the cut off at this rate. I also started to wonder if it was me – am I so wimpy on the bike that this breeze is keeping me down? It wasn’t until an aid station about 15 miles in that another rider remarked how god awful the wind was and he couldn’t wait to turn around for the backside of the loop.  At least then I knew it wasn’t just me. I continued uphill into the wind.

Riders occupy both lanes – out and back – on this road. The first two loops, packs of fasties would zoom by – they were pumping hard. When I finally flipped around, it was a relief – wind at the back with a slight downhill. After almost hitting an inflatable boulder (seriously – it belonged to a blow-up T-rex at an aid station) and passing a poor girl face down and not moving on the pavement (she had aid attending to her), I contemplated quitting. Not even 30 miles in. Not even.

On the back side of the first loop, you pass the special needs bags, which I estimated to be at mile 56 (the second time you pass it). I was already ready for mine but headed back into town as I was still quite a ways from half-way, looped around, stopped at a station to fill up on water and such. Back into the wind.  I didn’t think it possible, but the wind was now worse. Plus, I miscalculated where the turnaround was. It just wasn’t coming….ever. I rode and rode and the course just kept going…into the wind.

The mile markers for 80 and 90 miles loomed large now…as I wouldn’t hit them until my third loop.  I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t finish this second loop — let alone get to a third. Complete and utter relief hit me when I came to the turnaround, again, and started the quicker pace to special needs – which turned out to be more like 60 miles into the ride.

I started to develop a pretty nasty side stitch that prevented me from taking a deep breath. I ate a little extra Enduro bar (my cycling fuel of choice) and took a couple Tylenol to relieve the ache in my shoulders and back. I attempted to stretch out my side, but to no avail. Not only was my minimal bike training affecting my ability to pedal into the wind – it was seriously messing with my physical comfort.

I plugged along and came back into town for the third loop. I have to say, there was a good string of “f*$ks sung under my breath – or maybe not so under. I stopped at my favorite aid station – the one right before the awful wind tunnel and a volunteer chatted with me. “This is so awesome, I hope to be out here next year with you guys!”

“I hope to be in your shoes next year,” I said. He laughed and said, “It’s all relative” and sent me on my way (kindly of course).

It made me realize, though, that an event like Ironman is an awesome thing to be part of – it’s a privilege.  A piece of humanity suffering together, choosing to test their limits. It sounds odd, but it is what draws people to the sport – we miss connection so much in our day-to-day lives. You get a little piece of that back when you’re out on the course.

The wind was better on the last loop, but now I was tired and still slow. I was fearful of not hitting cut offs at miles 76 and 100, but I made them all and was surprised to see so many people still on the other side of the road when I made my final turnaround. They were packing up special needs when I passed it a final time – closing down.

At 100 miles, I knew I only had 12 miles to go. Flippin’ longest 12 miles of my life. At 105 I thought again about quitting (for the umpteenth time). Seriously, with 7 miles to go. But I hurt and just wanted to get the hell off that bike. Had some chipper chats with a first-time Ironman competitor who was “feeling better than he thought he would” and finally got to the dismount line. This was pure joy. It took me almost 7 ½ hours to ride. If you’ve ever done anything for 7 ½ hours, you know it’s an eternity. I can’t believe I survived that.

Bike handlers took my ride and I picked up my run bag and headed into transition. Lots of aid being given out and medics helping athletes on the ground – dehydration and dropping blood pressure. My volunteer was awesome, and somewhat surprised I didn’t really need much. I changed into running shorts – I knew this would be a slow race and didn’t really care about saving time by running in my tri shorts. Plus, I felt gross – new clothes helped. Especially since I ended up being out there MUCH longer than I planned.

Run:

I headed out on the run – a generous description – and immediately stopped at a port-o-potty. My side stitch was still there. I had really hoped standing up would make it go away; not so. But, as I jogged a bit, it seemed to stay steadily painful, not get worse, so I kept going at a slow pace. As long as the jog didn’t make it worse, I could continue.

The first 10K I felt pretty good – relatively speaking. Keeping up 9:50-10:30 pace (when I was actually running.) The course was mostly on a paved park path alongside Tempe Town Lake. Lots of spectators and cheers in this first part. The kids ran with me for a few hundred yards – gave me a little boost, upped my spirits and I felt all was good.

Then, the course headed across a foot bridge and it was at about mile 8 that the pain from my side started to radiate into my back. I kept up a jog/walk for another 4 miles and then surrendered to a walk. My back was killing me and the impact of a running step sent knife-like pains through my spine. I knew darn well why – stupid bike. No bike training meant my back was ready to rest after 112 miles, not run a marathon.

I decided to walk for a while, but power walk. I was keeping up a 4 mph pace, a good clip that had me cruising past other walkers. I played leap frog with run walkers, eventually leaving them behind. I figured if I could keep up this pace, I’d still hit a sub 15 hours for the race – which was what I really deserved given my prep. I’d hoped for less than 5 hour marathon – but now I was calculating a 5:30, I could live with that.

Then came the darned 18 mile marker – the footbridge again. (Run course was 2 loops.) And the pain got a lot worse. I just couldn’t power walk any longer and slowed down to 17-18-minute miles. I just kept going. Much of the walk was me holding my back, squeezing my lats and traps.  I stopped and laid on the cement, then the grass, then the cement and pebbles, hoping a yoga twist or two would release it. Nope. I held on to benches, bars…whatever came along… to lean back and stretch it out. No luck.

The vast majority of people I was now with were walking too…and had no sympathy. They were in the same boat – something hurt, or everything: knees, bottoms of the feet, all body parts. I can’t tell you how many times I stopped. I knew I had time to pump out these last miles but I WAS DONE. When I hit mile 20, I wanted to quit – again. And then at mile 22…and 23…and after passing the girl puking in the bushes… This would NEVER END.

I tried to run at mile 24, thinking at least I could get this over with sooner if I could crank out the last 2 miles. No luck, a few hundred yards and back to my stroll. My mind was playing every game possible and as much as I tried to be non reactive it poked and monkeyed at me.

I picked up the pace again and a guy I’d chatted with but who passed me when I stopped to lay on the ground said, “Oh, you look like you’re feeling better.” No, I wasn’t, I said, but I just had to get this damn thing done. Mile 25 was the longest mile yet…it reminded me of the Ascent up Pikes Peak, where you’re on the course and can hear the finishers coming through – I could hear Mike Reilly – but it was SO far away still.

When I finally reached the finisher’s chute, people lined the sides and I thought I should make an effort to pretend to run. Nope – my back was not having it. In the last 200 yards, I sucked it up and picked it up to a jog. A 6:30 marathon – seriously. But it was done. I was done.

IM finish

The End.

A 15:46 race. That’s crazy long and I wasn’t last. I’ve always said, I can’t imagine being out on a course that long. Now I can. And I have no desire to do that again.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t try another 140.6 ever…but not without training right. I had thought this would be the final tri of my career – but no, it’s a strong drug and I’m already contemplating a 70.3 for next year. I’ll put the full distance on hold for a while, and maybe forever, but I always say, never say never. You can’t close yourself off – especially because of fear.

You learn a lot about yourself out on the course. That’s why people come back again and again. What’s the fun in being comfortable? I also felt serious love and energy out there from friends and family back home – every person was with me in spirit. It certainly kept me going. Know how important your support and energy is to those around you. As Brené Brown writes, “Never underestimate the value of being seen—it’s exhausting to keep working against yourself when someone truly sees you and loves you.”

Good news – I’m not really sore, so I’ve got that. My back felt fine when I woke on Monday morning and I’m ready to be back at it. Well, measured-ly. Recovery is important for the rest of 2017, but for 2018, there are marathons to run, mountains to climb and waters to swim. I might even get on a bike again.

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2 Responses


  1. April Pratt on 21 Nov 2017

    You are an inspiration and trouper. The fact that you got back on your bike and tri’d again is amazing. Keep your head up high and see what other challenges speak to you.

  2. Doris Hartley on 21 Nov 2017

    Thank you for sharing such an honest and inspiring report. Continuing on when things are not going according to plan shows a person’s resilience and character. You have been an amazing inspiration and your humanity makes you one of a kind. You rock.


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