Ten minutes into the swim, I was hanging onto a kayak, seriously considering abandoning the race. I had just lost my breakfast and was wondering if I had picked up some bug, although I had been feeling fairly good
up until the cannon went off and had been looking forward to a great race.
May 1st was shaping up to be an ideal day, as the long range weather forecast had gone from thunderstorms and high winds, to just breezy, and as I checked the hour-by-hour weather prediction at 3AM on race
day...calm until 2:00. With that I decided to take a risk and use a disk wheel on the rear of my bike which would make me faster in good conditions, but can be difficult to control in high winds.
Wakeup and breakfast went just fine, the Marriott had an early buffet set up for the racers at 4:00 so I was able to get coffee, bagels and some fresh fruit. I also ate the 2nd half of a subway sandwich I had in the
fridge from the day before...In hindsight I think that may have caused my upset stomach later in the day.
Transit out to the reservoir was smooth, and my bike was where I had left it the day before, I double checked things, placed my bottles of Infinit nutrition in my bottle holders, check the gears and topped off my
tires. I bundled up against the 45-50' temperature and thought through the race strategy. Soon enough it was time to enter the water which was in the 50's but with wet suits and double swim caps I was feeling comfortable as I could.
I was positioned in the front of the pack, and got into difficulty immediately. This was my first open water swim of the year, although I had done a workout in the pool with my wet suit once, and one recon swim in
the reservoir two days earlier. Racing suits are very comfortable...but with a hard effort your breathing is constricted. This is a bit of a mental block you need to get past and I was not doing it. Racing with 2000 athlete clambering over your back while you struggle to breathe I really could not calm myself, and I headed across traffic over to the kayaks.
This is legal, as long as the kayakers do not paddle. I rested for a moment decided I had to try some more , but after another 200 yards, I was hanging on a different kayak feeding the fish my breakfast. At this point I
was thinking my day was over and I started composing my excuses. I thought through the people who would read that, in particular my aunt who has been fighting cancer for a year and what she has gone through with chemotherapy, and I knew I could not quit that easy.
Just taking a baby steps approach, I figured I could swim to the next buoy, and then the one after that. By this time, almost the entire field had passed me and there was nice open water to swim in. 10 years of swim
team training came back to me and I started mowing through the field. My race split says
that I got out of the water in 601st position, which means that I passed something like 1400 people over the 2 miles or so once I started swimming for real.
My official swim split was 1:13, if you factor in the 10 minutes or so lost up front, that means I swam close to an hour which is where I was expecting to finish. Many people after the swim were borderline hypothermic
and I heard a lot of stories about 15 and 20 minute transitions. As it was, I got dressed for my bike (including arm warmers, socks and gloves against the cold) in 6 minutes. More importantly, my focus was where I needed it and I was mentally ready for the rest of the day.
The bike course in St George was shattering to many people...there were long grades, steep hills and when you thought you saw a nice stretch of flat road ahead, high winds. Towards the end of the ride, many people who (based on their equipment and muscle tone) were very good bikers were hours off their expected times and I met and heard from several people who had finished multiple Ironman races who did not make the bike cutoff.
That is like Warren Buffet bouncing a check...it just doesn't happen. The bike cutoff is there for senior citizens and first-timers who are in over their heads...not experienced racers. The difficulty of this course, even in
relatively benign conditions, was more than almost everyone bargained for.
I didn't know any of this while I was out on the course however, and after a first hour in which I covered just under 20 miles (which I felt good about) the splits started to seem a lot slower that I was expecting. My last IM race I covered the bike in just over 5 1/2 hours and I was hoping to come close to that, since I felt like
I was in better shape. Watching my timer however, I saw 3 hours go past and I was not yet at the halfway...seeing your time goals slip away is depressing and I was kicking myself once again for not doing well.
I was using a fairly new Cyclocomputer, a Garmin Edge 500, which can display a wealth of information...but I had not settled on the fields I wanted to display. I had been looking at time, Heart rate, speed, power...but not average power. I decided I wanted to know that number and fiddled with menus until I got it up, and it returned good news. I had been riding with an average power of 180 watts, while at IMAZ I averaged 170. Since
power is the most objective measure of cycling performance, this gave me renewed confidence...I was riding with more power than my lifetime best for this distance and my HR was still fairly low (135). (Note - I have since realized that one of the settings was off and my actual power was more like 150 W... so it was a fairly weak effort after all. Long downhills drop power averages however..lots of zeroes, so it was not terrible)
Now I felt that I was riding a solid and smart race and that my slow times were a result of the external conditions (hills and wind). This was a tremendous advantage of racing with power...it gives you the confidence to meter your efforts based on very accurate information. I didn't see many people riding with power meters while they stomped up the hills ahead of me that first lap, but I knew they were burning reserves they could not spare. Sure enough, by the second lap I was going about the same pace and power levels, and starting to pass people who had been in my sight all day. I finished that last long hard climb, and made sure to polish off every bit of the 2000 calories I had mixed up in my drink mix, ate a few electrolyte tabs (I had been taking 2 an hour the whole ride) and got ready for the fast downhill to the T2 run transition.
It was well after 2:00PM by this point, and the wind was starting to blow pretty hard. If you remember my earlier decision to keep a disc wheel on, this was the risk. I did not want to ride the brakes down the hill (sacrificing valuable time), but I didn't want to crash either. I was able to ride the downhills at full speed ( I topped out at 48MPH) by riding on the bull horns instead of stretched out on the aero bars. The roads were rough so I
tossed out my empty bottles ahead of time (you do NOT want a water bottle stuck in your pedals at 50 miles an hour...nor wipe out a following rider) and just hung on for a tooth chattering ride down the hill. I stated to hear some new rattles out of my bike and the vibration took a toll...but nothing seemed critical so I kept heading down.
While that may sound a little stressful, most of the descent was plenty calm to rest up and get mentally ready for the run, which promised to be every bit as hard as the bike. I did some stretching, reviewed my plan for the up and down hills and got ready for the 26 mile 'cooldown'.
T2 was very smooth - you would never guess this was a first time race. The crews at both the rest stops and transitions were well oiled in the frenzy of shepherding delirious racers through their paces. It works like this.
You arrive at the dismount line and have to get off your bike. A volunteer takes your bike (which has number stickers on it) and they go rack it in the right slot, and point you to the T2 bag corral. Other volunteers are reading out your race number and hollering it out to still more volunteers who each oversee about 50 specific
bags. So as I enter the corral, a race volunteer hands me my bag with shoes and cap (and anything else I staged in it the day before) and points me towards a changing tent. I have not broken stride yet. Inside the tent, is a cross between a military field hospital and a spa...you get 1-1 attention from someone who helps you off with your cycling gear and on with your running gear. If you need extra attention, there are medical staff & massage therapists who will mash you back into shape. Meanwhile your personal helper has bagged
your helmet, shoes etc into your numbered bag for retrieval after the race.
From the time I crossed the dismount line, until I left running was about 4 minutes which would be impossible without the volunteers who manage all that with big smiles and good cheer. The day would be impossible
without them, and St George turned out over 3000 for this race.
Finally I was running. The run was over a 13 mile out & back course that you covered twice. It started out with two miles of gentle uphill, and then turned up sharply. The next mile & half gained about 300 feet on top of the 200 you had covered since the start and then went across a spectacular road called Red Hills Parkway that overlooked the town and surrounding mountains. This continued for about two miles, and then you went
down the other side of the parkway for the mid-point at about 6 miles . Then you retraced your steps.
The other interesting feature of the run was that the last few miles of the bike course paralleled the gentle uphill stretch, so you could see the bikers coming in. Immediately after I started the run, I could see the people who had been close behind me...and a lot of them looked like pretty good bikers, that is another confidence booster. When you look around you and everyone you see looks like they are ready for the ER, you have to
realize you must look like that too. On the other hand, if you look around and everyone looks pretty fast and strong, you can take some confidence from that.
On my second run loop, I was heading out this stretch at about 5:20 PM...knowing the bike course cut off was 5:30. For a few minutes, I was cheering on the riders to push hard and clear the cut-off time which would end their day. As 5:30 neared however, it got kind of quiet because we knew these riders would miss it. It was sad to see people who had worked so hard this day, and the months leading up to it, knowing a race official was going to take their numbers from them in moments. There were lots of folks in this group that I'm sure never expected to face that race reaper.
So my strategy on the run is just to go 1 mile at a time, I picked a heart rate target not to exceed on the uphills and just walked to the top. One thing I had prepared well for was running on the downhills, since I have plenty of opportunity to practice in Boulder. The downhills can pound tired legs, but if you are up to it you can make up a lot of time and go pretty fast without raising your heart rate or working too hard.
My heart rate monitor was my friend on this section, I just tried to keep my feet moving fairly quickly, watch the mile markers and take a walk break when my HR exceeded 155. The miles went by fairly steadily and the
surrounding crowd changed character. As I started the run, the people coming at me we 90 or so minutes ahead of me…which is kind of like the difference between JV and Varsity. They were looking fast and powerful, especially the pros who were two laps ahead of me and finishing their day in less than 9 hours while I was just heading out for a 4 hour run.
As I progressed on the run to the turnaround point, the oncoming runners were closer and closer to my time and ability. Some of them looked like they were coming apart after riding too hard and I tried to mark them to see if I could run them down (tall guy, green shoes – can I catch him in the next 10 miles?). Eventually, I was the guy coming back at the oncoming runners with almost a full lap lead and I’m sure a few misguided souls looked at me and thought I looked pretty good. The second lap went much like the first, I grabbed a cup of water every other mile, sipped Infinit from my hand bottle and promised myself a coke at mile 20. I got to the final turnaround and headed for home. I told myself 6 miles is just an easy run after work, and with the setting sun on the horizon that was an easy mindset to get into.
The last two IM’s I had run, I was passed in the final two miles by women who were finishing stronger than I was. I promised myself that was not going to happen this time, and as the course turned down for the 3 mile descent into town, I picked up my pace from an economical jog to (what at least felt like) an honest run. As I passed the 2 mile to go marker, there she was, a women in her 40’s who had been running within a few hundred
yards of me for the entire marathon. I turned down the Diagonal road about 10 seconds behind her, and sure enough she was picking up her pace. I accelerated and for maybe a minute, we just held our respective positions (mind you she did not know I was chasing her) and then I was able to stretch my stride just an
extra inch or two and pick up some speed.
I was able to catch and pass the mystery lady and hold onto my quicker pace all the way to the end of the road to the home stretch, where I could hear Mike Riley calling out the names of the finishers one by one as they crossed the line. Charging hard for the finish is a little silly when you are 4 hours behind the winners, but with the music, the crowds and the finish line in sight I could not slow down and went full speed across the line
as the announcer called my name…then stumbled just as the finish line camera snapped my picture. I now have a nice slapstick moment preserved for posterity.
So my day started out about as badly as it could, from almost quitting, to a disappointing swim time, to a so-so bike split to a run that I was actually feeling pretty happy with. My splits were:
IronMan St George Splits
This was an hour slower than I had hoped/forecast for my time…but with a little hindsight and after all the people I spoke with that did not even finish I am not feeling too bad about it. Looking at my overall finishing positions, At Ironman Arizona I was exactly 100 minutes faster and finished in 372th place out of 2000 or so racers, a result I was over-the-moon happy with. In St George, I was a lot slower, but so was everyone else and I finished in 396th place… that is a pretty similar result that I can’t be too disappointed with considering I faced some difficulties along the way.
The race itself started out with 2,365 registered racers, and only 1,915 showed up for the start. Of those, 272 people did not make it to the end for one reason or another, almost a 15% DNF rate which is quite high.
One of the great lessons of Ironman races is that there is almost always another page to turn, and if you’re having a bad moment it will likely pass. When I was hanging off a kayak at 7:05 in the morning with 140.5 miles ahead of me, the day was looking pretty daunting, but a step at a time takes you forward no matter how tough a spot you are in, and if all that can be accomplished in one day…what can be accomplished in a month, a year or a lifetime of moving forward, even with a few setbacks?