Saturday, November 27, 2010

Ironman Arizona as a Volunteer

As a volunteer, I get to immerse myself in the spectacle and spirit of the race while foregoing most of the physical discomfort. Last year I raced and suffered hypothermia from the swim and a hurt shoulder from the bike crash. I was uncomfortable and somewhat miserable the whole race. It was a small price to pay for the sheer joy of crossing the finish line. This year any discomfort a racer would experience was multiplied by hail, wind and cold weather. I was thankful that I wasn't trying to brave such conditions as an athlete. The volunteer have to brave the same conditions, but at least we could take a break or leave when we wanted to.

My first shift was at the Phoenix Tri Club run aid station. I got there about three o'clock in the afternoon, in time to see Chrissie Wellington, the eventual women's winner dash by. I appointed myself the cookie distributor. At this hour, the faster people were out on the course and didn't seem interested in cookies. The scantily clad "police women" were at the head of the line of volunteers, and the volunteer captain, who looked like a dead ringer for one of our notorious local law enforcement hacks was shaking his night stick and admonishing hapless runners. The Club had built a "town" and had various police props. Hopefully, it was a welcome distraction for people struggling to get through the run.

I found out that I got rather cold just standing around. I was looking forward to my shift at the finish line, where I could at least move around. It was fairly decent as long as the sun was out, but as it set, I got colder. It made me feel even colder to watch the hot runners pouring water on themselves. I wished I was running just to warm up. Then it rained. It was annoying. I watched the parade of runners. As the evening wore on, there was less running and more walking. The runners took on a dazed look. I talked to people I knew in the race and gave one a hug. Some people I knew were going to walk most of the marathon. I have walked most of a half marathon in a nightmare half ironman and it isn't fun.
I was next to the people handing out gatoraid. A runner would take it and then throw it on the ground and we would sometimes get splashed by it. We would have to pick up the empty cups. In addition, occasionally someone would toss a used sponge that they had been stuffed down their top. These were disgusting to pick up. I found out later that they were being recycled by the volunteers, which is even more disgusting. Imagine squeezing water out of a used sponge on your head. It was a germ-a-phobe's nightmare. When you are racing many hours, personal hygiene isn't really a priority. Unclean hands picking up grapes or oranges in a common tray. I hope these racers had good immune systems. I wasn't going to eat this stuff, that's for sure.
Despite the discomfort, the hard work and the uncleanliness, it was fun. We had music going and it felt like a party. An ironman has an indescribable atmosphere. It's joy and pain and exhaustion and celebration all rolled into one. My feet hurt and my legs ached, but I was glad to be out there handing out cookies.
I left to walk to the finish line. Away from the aid station, the sidewalk in bathed artificial orange light and it seems bleak. I pass runners going the other way and I try to stay out of their way. I make my way across Mill Avenue bridge and it seems a lot warmer than by the marina. The buildings across the water reflect light in the water. It's quiet on the bridge, but I soon approach the chaos and noise of the finish line.
The finish line is a great place to observe the reaction of a racer. As finish line catchers, we line up and take turns holding a racer steady, so that they can get their timing chip off, get their medal and t-shirt, have their picture taken and be guided to the exit. As they cross the finish line, the announcer says "you are an ironman!". Sometimes the racers need medical help, sometimes they are perfectly lucid. Most are kind of dazed and distracted and want to see their family or friends. Some are overcome with emotion and can't move. Most can't find the exit. This year they had the bonus of Chrissie Wellington greeting them with a hug until midnight. I was impressed that a pro would come out after racing all day just to greet age groupers. I watched people's look of surprise when they realize she was there. It was priceless.
I had a twinge of envy when I saw happy people crossing the finish line, but only a small twinge. I had no desire to do an ironman this year and certainly didn't have the motivation to gut out the bad weather this year. I shuddered when I looked at the cold lake, remembering my miserable swim last year. It takes a lot of mental fortitude to endure the discomfort of an ironman and I didn't have it this year.
However, I did remember what it was like to cross the finish line. I remember what it was like to suddenly hit the brightly lit final chute and high five the spectators. I remember what it felt like to finally achieve something that I had been working for for years to achieve. This year, it was an indescribable joy and exhaustion that I was vicariously picking up from these racers. It permeates the air, from the racers, to the announcer, to the spectators to the volunteers. You don't have to have even ever raced the event to pick it up. You don't have to race fast to pick it up. The later the finish, the louder the crowd and the more enthusiastic the announcer.
I don't know if I will ever race Ironman Arizona again, but I will definitely volunteer again. Free happiness. What could be better?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Pre-Ironman Arizona

I am anticipating having fun volunteering for Ironman Arizona. I don't know why I can't stay away. I have raced or volunteered every year it has been in existence, except one. I regretted skipping that one year even. I did a local bike ride instead and it wasn't nearly as fun. I have to admit it-I'm am Ironman Arizona junkie.

The first year I volunteered, I worked gear bags. The organizers make you put all the stuff you need for the bike in one bag and the run stuff in another bag. You grab it when you go through to the change tents. It was enough to drive you crazy trying to keep thousand of bags in order and try to find them quickly when people need them. But it was fun to help people go through transition and some people actually bothered to thank you. An added bonus was checking out the nice derrieres of the male pros that ran through.

Also fun was the women's change tent. It was exciting to help the eventual winner of the women's division. You saw all kinds of reactions from people depending upon the time of day. Some people were dazed from the swim or from fighting the strong winds on the bike course. You would dump their gear bags out and it took them a while to decide what they needed. Some people just breezed through. Some people needed medical attention. People who didn't make the bike cut-off would just sit down and cry. You could try to help them, but you really couldn't take away the pain of not finishing after all the emotional and financial investment in training for the race.

One of the most fun volunteer positions is finish line catcher. When a racer comes staggering over the line, two people support them by holding their arms. They give up medical gloves for this so that we don't have to actually touch these people. People are usually rather gross and sweaty after racing 140.6 miles. We guild them to get finisher shirt, medals and pictures and then hand them off to their friends or relatives. Some people are alert and don't need much help. Some people scream when they cross the line, some people cry, some are quiet, some are talkative and most are joyous. Some people are incoherent. Some people are so emotional that they don't move and we have to urge them along. Sometimes they take it out on the volunteers and hug us. It's fun to watch and rather moving. The people who are collapsing, I usually let someone else help them to the medical tent, because I can't hold them up.

As the night goes on, the flow of racers gets slower. The finishing chute goes by bleachers filled with people cheering. The crowd bangs on the bleachers and people high five the racer heading to the finish line. The announcer says "you are an ironman! as the racer goes to the finish line. Late in the evening, the announcer gets off his podium and works up the crowd. The music is loud, the crowd is noisy and it's a total party.

So this year, I am working a run aid station and the finish line again. I can't wait.

Empty bike racks awaiting bikes.

People enjoying the brisk 61 degree water in the pre-swim in Tempe
. Town Lake.

Swim stairs and Mill Avenue bridge looking east.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Amica Tri Race Report

This was another start in the dark race at Lake Pleasant again. You get up in what seem the middle of the night, drive in the dark and set up in the dark. A flashlight was quite useful. This race was set up different than the Prospector race, however. For one thing you had to hike up a hill to use the restroom. Would it have hurt to put one port a potty near the transition area?

Once it got lighter, I could see the lake was choppy. ARGHH! There must be something about this end of the lake that sucks in all the wind. The triathlons I have done in other parts of the lake were never this choppy. I knew this swim was going to be a lot of work. I was regretting my decision to do the olympic, rather than the sprint race. I was recovering from being sick and I really didn't feel enthusiastic or energized for racing.

I got in the water and it was like a tree exploded in the water. A ring of wood bits lapped the dock and the debris even went out to where we had to tread water at the start. I had to sweep it away with my arm to get beyond it. I felt calm, but I didn't think I was going to enjoy this swim. The water was mercifully warm.

We started the swim. I had to spit wood bits out my mouth and finally got beyond the wood debris. The water wasn't as bad as my October swim. I breathed and swallowed water from the slapping waves, but I wasn't getting thrown around as violently. The swim seemed to take forever. I think the course was mis-measured, as it often is in olympic triathlons and that it was long. It took me 51 minutes and I was really glad to get out of the water because that swim was NOT enjoyable. I was tired. At least I finished before the sprint race started. I went up the ramp to transition and of course everyone was gone. It's a depressing feeling to know your swim was so slow that everyone finished before you.

I stumbled through transition and rode my bike out unto the empty bike course. The first part was a series of short steep hills. I was beginning to wonder if I was lost. I was on the turn around when the sprint pros rode past me. It's always a sight to see someone rides a bike well. I always wonder what it would be like to be able to ride fast. It wasn't happening for me on this bike course.

I ride to the main road and there were more riders on that part of the course. I was waiting to feel enthusiastic about bike course and the surge of energy and joy just wasn't there. I think I left it in the swim. If you have a tough swim it affects the rest of the race. The climbs and descents were longer than the first part of the course. I was doing alright but I wasn't inspired to ride REALLY hard. It was a lot of effort just to climb the hills. There weren't a lot of people to pass to so I could put in a surge of speed to get by them.

I finish the relatively short 2o mile ride intending to fly through transition. Instead I had a clusterf**k of massive proportion. I run down to the end of the rack and search frantically for my stuff. After about five minutes of this consternation, I figure out that I'm searching the wrong rack and finally get to the right rack. I couldn't believe that I had made this rookie mistake. Maybe all the blood had gone from my brain to my legs. I felt really stupid. One of my longest T2's ever. I was going to stop at the restroom, but I decided to gut it out instead to make up some time.

The run I decided I would fight for. I was aiming to try and finish it in 62 minutes, which wasn't great, but it would be faster than I have done in an olympic tri run all year. The initial part goes downhill for about two miles, so you can gain speed on that part. I had decent miles descending. I saw the pained look on people's faces going uphill. I would be soon joining their pain. Unlike the bike course, the run course had more people on it to pass. Some of them were walking, some limping.

I got to the turnaround and started the ascent at about 29 minutes. I had to push harder to keep the minute per mile time down and I was doing decent for a while. It was getting warm and I had abdominal cramps. My heart rate was fairly high. I finally got to the top of the hill and started descending. I was trying to pick up speed. I was hoping it was downhill to the finish line and I could make up some time lost climbing the hill. One cop said "it's all downhill from here". He was cruelly mistaken. I got to about mile 5.5 when my heart rate was climbing and my legs tired and there was a enormous hill. It wasn't really all the big, but any hill would have been huge at this point. I was finally reduced to walking in discouragement. This course was beating me up.

Finally, it was downhill after negotiating a short stretch of unwelcome rocky trail. Final run time 63:50, which was better than the previous Lake Pleasant triathlon. This course was actually tougher because it had more hills and it was one of the toughest 10k's I have done. I had a sense of satisfaction from gutting out a tough run. The whole triathlon took about 3:34 with the T2 fumbling. I was wasted with the energy it took. It felt like a 3.5 hour sprint race without the speed.

I ate the cold pizza. I wasn't terribly hungry because the race was so strenuous. Last year, they had pancakes, which was awesome. I missed those pancakes. I was the only one in my age group, but they didn't call me or any of the women in the 50-54 age group either, for an award. An age group award is meaningless anyway, if you are the only one, but it was a little annoying.
The race organizers just didn't seem to be trying as hard this year. It was an O.K. race, but I miss FLAT. I wanted to P.R.(personal record) in a half iron and it didn't happen this year because the Tempe Town Lake burst and there are very few half irons as "easy" as Soma. Lake Pleasant just doesn't cut it as a race venue for going your fastest. It's all you can do to survive the humbling hills and the choppy lake and it's slow going. The sensible stay away and you are left competing with really fast people, so you end up near the bottom of the standings. You feel like you are inadequate, when really it takes a lot of strength and stamina just to finish the race.

So I just decided to be happy about the run. The triathlon season is over for me. Next year awaits.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Last Triathlon of the Season

Tomorrow is my last triathlon of the season. It will mark the 10th year I having been doing triathlons. My first one was the Desert Grande in Casa Grande in November of 2000, which was a pool sprint. I had no training plan, other than the one I made up, and the only bike I had was a mountain bike. I was totally clueless. I had no one to support me or to cheer me on. I felt kind of tired and loopy during the run. The feeling of accomplishment was a high, though, and after this race I was never the same.

My race tomorrow is at Lake Pleasant again, which is a tough venue. It is the same transition area as the Prospector race I just did, but the course is more spread out and it isn't endless loops. The run and the bike are still very hilly. I don't expect great times and I am adopting the same attitude I had at the Prospector race, which is go hard, have fun and don't worry about the crappy results.

I always have a feeling of dread and anticipation before a race. Will things go wrong? Will I race poorly? Will this be the best race ever? Until I actually start the race, my nerves wear on me and I can't stand it. There seems to be a thousand things to do and things to remember to bring. It doesn't help that I have to get up at god awful hour in the pitch dark when I am half asleep and drive somewhere in the middle of nowhere. There are always the long porta potty lines when you urgently need to go or worse yet no porta potty near by when I need to go NOW. You have to drag a mound of equipment from your car to transition. Sometimes you freeze waiting around for your wave to start. Yet somehow it is worth it when you finally get to start.

So I am hoping that this race is a fitting mark to the end of the season and my ten years of doing these crazy races. I am hoping that there will be food left by the time I finish. I am hoping I won't be dead last. I am hoping I won't get a flat tire. (Praise be to the tire gods). I will be sad and relieved that I am going to put my wetsuit away until next year in a lonely, dark corner of the closet. With it, I can also put away the unpredictable anxiety of swimming in open water that sometimes makes me panic. Until next year.