Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ironman Arizona Race Report

I have a love/hate relationship with this race. The run course is flat, and at times creepy in the dark, remote areas in the wee hours of the evening. Some parts of it smells like sewer gas. The miles of concrete destroy my feet. The three loop bike course is ugly, boring and times evil when the wind comes howling out of the same exact diagonal as the Beeline highway. Past memories of the exhaustion from futilely fighting the wind were indelibly etched in my brain. Countless hours of mind-numbing training on this road made it difficult to tolerate its existence.

Still, Arizona was the one race I thought I could do, since I had finished it before. After being forced off the Ironman Lake Tahoe bike course last year, it seemed like a good idea to sign up for Arizona. Maybe, I would finally get the finisher’s high or I could be faster than the last time I raced it. It might make up for the rest of my crappy race season this year. I was wrong.

The line last year for registration. Bring your own chair.
The rest of the world had the same delusion. This race gets more crowded every year and sells out when registration opens online. Hopefuls think that the swim, bike and run will be kind to them.

The day started with traffic gridlock getting to the race site in the morning. I tried not to get stressed as time slipped away while the line of cars in front of me barely moved. A half an hour later, I reached the parking area. Half dazed from lack of coffee and sleep, I walked in the dark to the transition area.

I felt irritable negotiating the crowds in transition, and wished they had left their strollers, significant others and small children behind. The time before a race was filled with dread of the unknown and innumerable tasks to do. I had to drop off bags, get my bike tires pumped up, get body marked and stand in a long porta-potty line. Why can’t these people poop faster? I wondered if I would be able to start on time.

The ducks seem happy
I usually dread the swim. Fear intensified the unpleasantness of immersing myself in cold water in the chilly dawn morning. I was herded into the lake with the other masses. To get in involved climbing down a set of stairs, jumping off into the green, murky water and hoping that an unseen obstacle didn’t lurk under the surface. Plus, not hitting the other bodies already in the water. The process was so slow that the start was delayed five minutes to 7:05 a.m. I went in and was immediately was hit by the chilliness of the water, but it wasn’t the face-stinging cold that I have encountered before. 

The start line required a swim under a bridge, but usually what I thought about was not where I was, but being pummeled by all the other swimmers. In other races I had felt an almost mystical calm before the swim, but now I only thought about the task at hand. The usual emotional drama of the mass start wasn’t there for me. Spectators think it’s great, but they weren’t in the midst of the flailing arms and legs, which can cause injury.

Practice swim. The start line is beyond this bridge somewhere.
The swim was one loop, which was great because the fast swimmers were out of my way, but it went on forever. The buoys inexplicably zig-zagged, if they could even be seen in the glare of the rising sun. The lake curves, which I always found to be slightly disturbing. I appreciated having so many lifeguards in kayaks, but they were an obstacle sometimes.

After an eternity, I reached the turn buoy, went across the lake and turned back west. The sloshing water grew choppier and the surface rippled with the unwelcome wind that had picked up. Other swimmers were struggling and hanging onto kayaks. I felt strong and in control, but battling the chop took a lot of effort. The conditions would have been difficult for the unfit or inexperienced, but I had been in worse.  

At last the final turn red turn buoy appeared. The water was clogged with kayaks and people were cheering loudly. This probably indicated the swim cut-off was near, so I went as hard as possible. After being hauled up the stairs by a volunteer, I looked at my watch and inwardly groaned as it said 2:08. I wished I could have swam fast like anyone else. I still had time, but had to hustle.

Not being hypothermic after the swim for once, I got dressed fairly quickly with the help of a volunteer. Having sun screen slathered on my legs by volunteers felt nice. I could get used to that, like it was a spa. I had my bike handed to me and I got onto the course. 

No time to pee and I really needed to. I hated riding a bike with a full bladder and stopped at the first porta-potty. Some people pee on their bikes, which can be entertaining to watch, but it would have been treacherous to be downwind of in this weather. I didn’t have that particular skill set.

The bike route is considered by fools or the unwary to be fairly “easy”, but it can turn into a screaming harpy in the wind. And wind there was. A mind-numbing lap up, then down a hill three times. Descending was much faster than ascending. I really wanted to avoid the soul-crushing nightmare of not finishing in 2008, when the temperature was ninety degrees and the wind twenty-five miles per hour. 

The scenery was a unpleasant mix of industrial areas, ruined buildings, trash, and stark desert. A Sonoran Desert version of an Appalachian slum. Plus, the route passed a dump six times. If the wind was blowing the wrong way, it could be an olfactory assault. Today it was.

I was in a hurry, so I ignored the ugly surroundings and stared down at the road while other riders whizzed past me.

The first lap, I made my goal time in order to beat the cut-off, but I had to ride hard to do it. Like the swim, the rest of world biked faster with less effort. I turned around to ascend again past the cheering crowds in the Tempe streets.

Six miles into the second lap, I shifted gears and my chain fell off. I put it back on, but the shifter cable was loose. I stopped to have it fixed and went on. Around mile fifty-two, the wind had picked up to about twenty-five miles per hour and the uphill was slow. My aspirations for this race quickly vanished in the evil breeze. Doubt and despair dropped into my mind and constantly nagged at me. The fear of not being able to finish made me want to cry. I was losing the battle. Still, I desperately pedaled on, exerting a lot of energy to go slowly up. My leg muscles were threatening to cramp, with stabbing pain at random intervals.

My coaches were a welcome sight up at the top of the hill. I shouted that I didn’t think I could finish, and one said I have 3.5 hours and that I could do it. I doubted it, but decided to try. Flying downhill, one of my contacts fell out. Luckily, it was out of my weaker eye and I could still see fairly well. What else could go wrong? No time to stop and put in another one. I got down in a short fifty-five minutes with the violent tail wind.

On the way up again, making the 4:15 cut off at the top seemed unlikely. The sun was lower in the horizon. Other people climbing in the fading light slowed down and stopped on the road, as if they were giving up. At least I could get a ride at the aid station if officials took my timing chip. Near the top, a rider coming down said that they were changing the cut off to 4:30 and we had three minutes and could make it. Persistence might be rewarded. I pushed my screaming legs around faster, heart pounding and got to the ninety-three mile turn-around in time while the volunteers cheered. 

On the way down, the tail wind had lessened, which annoyed me. It had punished me all day and now it was failing to provide a last push. The road was difficult to see riding into the sunset with my blurred vision. At the last aid station, someone said it was 5:21. Getting into transition by 5:30 was unlikely, but I pressed onward anyway. At the finishing chute, people were cheering loudly, so there might be a chance. I made the cut-off by five seconds. Five seconds! When I found this out later, it blew me away. It was the best part of the race. One small victory when all seemed lost.

A volunteer led me to the change tent. Somehow, they expected me to be able to walk when I could barely hobble. They helped me dress and I put another contact in my eye. I stepped out of the tent and the sky had turned pink. 

The folly of the effort of riding as hard as I could for 112 miles hit me. Moving was painful, let alone running. I walked in the dusk for a few minutes, hoping that the pain that came with every step would lessen. Eventually I could run, but it was feeble.

Since I had gotten in so late, I had less than six and a half hours to finish a marathon. In normal circumstances, this would have been doable. Unless I miraculously perked up, it was impossible. Sometimes it happens. A person keeps moving, gets a second wind and speeds up. That’s why giving up was unacceptable, if a chance existed to turn a bad race around.

The first part of the run course was an out and back along the south bank of Tempe Town Lake. High rise buildings were lit up in the night. Some participants were the walking dead like me, some were actually running. I couldn’t move fast enough. My legs went through the motion, but didn’t propel me. My feet felt like I had rocks in my shoes.  I passed the cheering crowd, then went into silent darkness. The aid stations had a variety of offerings, but I mostly drank coke and chicken broth, which was the food of the gods. One offered bacon, but at this point, it would have been a dubious choice. Beer, on the other hand...

Lovely view on the run course.
An hour down, and I hadn’t gone four miles. Like a dream where I am frantically try to get somewhere, but never do. To finish was hopeless at this point, but I didn’t want to stop until someone took my timing chip. The humiliation was less when someone else forced me to quit. I crossed a bridge and reached the creepy part of the course west of the lake illuminated by a sickly yellow light. Airplanes, landing at the nearby Sky Harbor Airport, roared overhead occasionally. Remnants of the choked off Salt River ran below the path. It was framed with an expressway to the north.  I thought I heard a scream in the dark, brush-filled hollow.  Hopefully, not an athlete. My feet felt worse with the endless concrete.  
People tried to be encouraging, but I couldn’t summon much cheer in my deep funk. I thanked them, but I didn’t smile. The worst were the ones who assumed that I was almost done. Just shut up! I longed for someone to put me out of my misery, but I didn’t see anyone with a gun. Which of the nine circles of hell was I in?

I was resigned to my fate now and felt like a loser. If only I could have biked or ran faster. I reached the part where the first lap splits off from the finish line. I could hear the announcer shouting “you are an ironman!” to the finishers. It wouldn’t be there for me. No cheering crowd, bright lights nor medal. Someone from my tri club walked up to me and mentioned something about being almost done. I said I was only on the first lap and wouldn’t finish. She hugged me and I was touched.

I asked a volunteer where the first lap went and he walked with me for a while. Then another one took over. Maybe I looked like death and he was worried my body would litter the course. I tried to run to get it over with. I finally met up with the chip-taker guy at the 13.1 mile mark and my race was officially over. I was sad and relieved.

I should be happy I got through the swim relatively unscathed and that I actually finished the bike in tough conditions. The rest of the world would find a 2.4 mile swim in Tempe Town Lake and a 112 mile bike incomprehensible, not to mention repulsive. In the unreality of the triathlete world, it is more probable, making it easy to lose perspective about the difficulty. Everyone else can do it, so why can’t I? 

The training was awful sometimes, but it forced me into a higher level of fitness. With a bad race, though, it seemed pointless. I missed the joy. No finish felt like failure.  

As hard as I tried, I just could not conquer this race with the howling wind on the butt ugly Beeline and the bleak banks of Tempe Town Lake. I am not up to going through this again, at least for a while. And if I do, the suffering had better be in a pretty place.