Note: The post that follows was written in April 2008, when the events of the day were still fresh in my mind.
Ironman Arizona: April 13, 2008
It was somewhere around 6:40am when I jumped into Tempe Town Lake. It was cold upon impact, even in my wetsuit, but I told myself that come the middle of the day I’ll only be wishing I could jump back in. A little over a year prior I had completed the Ironman 70.3 California in Oceanside (a half-Ironman distance race), and in the aftermath of that success I had signed up for this: a full-distance, honest-to-goodness, sanity-betraying, 140.6-mile excursion in needing-to-prove-God-only-knows-what called IRONMAN. Race day, an abstraction for so long, had arrived. I had done an immense amount of preparation, all boiling down to this day of reckoning. Or should I say boiling up? Since Samantha and I had arrived in Tempe three days earlier, the already wickedly hot temperatures had been steadily rising each day. The first twelve days of April, according to weather.com, saw highs in the upper 70s to the mid-80s, but today’s forecast ominously called for a high in the mid-90s.
A gun went off at 6:45am to announce the beginning of the race for the pros only (apparently they need a 15-minute head start), while we age-groupers swam to the start line and positioned ourselves for the first leg of the course, a 2.4-mile open water swim. Quite deliberately, I hung out on the outer part of the mass of bobbing heads and toward the back of the pack, holding no delusions about my speed nor any desire to be trampled over, kicked in the face, or otherwise inconvenienced so early on a Sunday morning. After the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” the gun was sounded again to indicate the 7:00am start of this amazing race which would not end until midnight. Due to my chosen placement among the field of swimmers, the body-to-body contact I experienced was minimal and mostly occurred in the beginning. I was able to relax soon enough and swim steadily without too much concern about dodging the flailing arms and legs of my 2,000 or so partners in Iron-insanity as we swam into the blinding sunrise. I could see only the view to my right each time I took a breath, which was the wall marking the edge of the lake, over which spectators took in the show. The changing scenery of spectators provided some reassurance that I was indeed swimming in something resembling a straight line. The stream of swimmers spread out so quickly (or, perhaps, the majority simply zoomed ahead of me) that before long it felt as if I had the lake to myself. This was a good, safe, liberating feeling. Once we started moving, the cool water was wonderfully refreshing and, though murky, pleasantly devoid of the chlorine in which I had submerged myself for a total of 55 hours during my pool swims of the previous 29 weeks. I was perhaps better prepared for the swim than anything, in the sense that I had completed the race distance in my local pool literally 26 times since October.
When I got to the turn-around point, I called out to one of the folks on kayaks: “Do you have the time?”
“Fifty-minutes. Five-oh,” he reiterated for clarification.
“Woohoo!” I yelled out (mistaking this for the actual halfway point), and made my way around the next buoy. My pace in the pool during training had been amazingly consistent. Even though it took me nearly 2 hours to swim the Ironman distance in the pool, based on my Ironman 70.3 swim time (51 minutes) I was hoping that my full Ironman swim time would be more like 1:45 (105 minutes). Then, allowing myself 15 additional minutes for the Swim-to-Bike transition, I’d be on the bike at 9:00am, 2 hours into the race. Either way, all of the pool swims I had done had given me sufficient confidence that I would make the 2:20 swim cut-off without any problem at all. It was the bike cut-off that was of much greater concern to me.
Following the advice of the books I had read during training (particularly my favorite: IRONSTRUCK…The Ironman Triathlon Journey by Ray Fauteux), I was pretty good about staying as relaxed as possible during the swim and keeping my heart rate down. It was a long day ahead, and it would be important to conserve energy and pace myself. I knew that the swim would likely be the “easiest” part of the day, and I was determined to enjoy it. And I did! I did not worry in the slightest about the speed of those around me – such is the liberating beauty of being non-competitive. My goal was simply to finish the entire course by midnight and thereby be officially declared an “Ironman.”
I continued swimming with the sun now behind me, parallel to the way I had just come, and then followed the buoys leading back toward the transition area. Volunteers cheered us on and pointed us toward the metal staircase from which we would climb out of the lake with their assistance. Upon exiting, I was pointed in the direction of the wetsuit strippers, more volunteers whose job it was to help you remove your cumbersome and soaking wet swimming attire. I reclined on the ground and a volunteer behind me grabbed onto my hands for leverage as another pair of volunteers in front of me pulled my wetsuit down toward my legs and with some additional force yanked it off. I couldn’t help but laugh. When I stood up, I was handed my wetsuit and directed to the transition tent, which I walked to donning only my swimsuit and the ankle chip which recorded my time as I went over the timing mats. A quick glance up at the clock revealed 1:58 and some change in red digits, as the seconds ticked on. Hmmm…did that time reflect what had elapsed since the age-grouper start, or since the pro start 15 minutes earlier? If it was the latter, it meant I had met my hoped-for swim finish time. I walked (not ran, again a deliberate energy-conserving choice) toward the men’s changing tent where I was handed my Swim-to-Bike gear bag by another gracious volunteer. I changed out of my swimsuit and into my bike shorts (with Body Glide generously applied first to prevent chafing), my bike jersey (which contained all of the food for my ride in its three back pockets), socks, bike shoes, helmet, and sunglasses. While I was changing, I heard the announcer declare from the speakers outside that Frank Farrar had just come out of the water. Frank had been introduced to us at the Welcome Dinner on Friday night. At age 79, he was the oldest participant in today’s race, and he was apparently right on my tail! This is becoming an all too familiar experience for me at these events. Humbling, to say the least. I stashed all of my swim gear back into the bag, and put on my watch and my Camelbak before exiting the tent. More volunteers awaited me and generously applied sunscreen to my arms and legs, and my race number was called out on a megaphone so another volunteer would have my bike ready for me as I entered the transition area. Rock star treatment all the way. I walked my bike to the mounting point, hopped on, and took off. Samantha, who had seen me come out of the swim from the vantage point of one of the Mill Avenue bridges, had migrated over here to cheer me on during my first few pedals as I began the second leg of the course, the 112-mile bike ride. A quick glance at my watch showed 9:13am. Apparently the swim did take me 1:58 to finish, which meant I had less of a window than I was hoping for to finish the bike course. But so be it. I was off! I am actually, right now, at this very moment, on the bike course of an Ironman race, I told myself. This is really it!
I headed down Rio Salado Parkway to begin the first of three loops that make up the bike course. Almost immediately I was assaulted by a headwind. Two miles into the ride I noted my average speed on the Cateye: 12.0 mph. I had done my math homework ahead of time, and knew that I needed to keep an average speed of 14.0 mph for the duration of the ride in order to finish it in 8 hours. The bike cut-off was 5:30pm. Starting as I did at 9:13am, I had 8 hours and just a little bit of change to make it. If you cross after 5:30pm, and they are notoriously strict about this, you are not allowed to continue on to the run course – your race is over. Okay, so I need to bump up my average speed to 14 mph. It’s still early. However, as I began the gradual ascent up the incline known as Beeline Highway, the headwind picked up with a vengeance. I kept my computer on the average speed setting and watched helplessly as the number fell from 12.0 to 11.9, then 11.8, 11.7, 11.6, 11.5… The books I had read all told me that perhaps the most common mistake made in an Ironman race is going out too hard at the start of the bike. Pacing and energy conservation are of the utmost importance – you have to have enough left in your legs to complete a marathon when you get off the bike, after all! I could heed no such admonition under the circumstances. My speed was steadily declining the more miles I rode, and the wind was forceful and unrelenting. I had to give it everything I could if I had any hopes of even seeing the run course. As we left Tempe and rode into the boundaries of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, the spectators and buildings disappeared and were replaced by sheer desert wilderness. I pedaled furiously, but it was no use. I lamented each time I glanced down at my computer. When the average speed dropped to a disheartening 10.5 mph, things looked really grim. What is this??? What can I do??? There certainly are no guarantees about the weather in any given race – you get what you get. But this wind was utterly unfair! How could I even stand a chance against it? All of that training… I had buckled down and bought a road bike for this race (I had been stubbornly using a $300 mountain bike for all of my previous races, even the half Ironman-distance one), and it was a good thing I did – mostly everyone else was geared out in way more expensive tri-bikes. I was one of the very few folks out there without even aero bars, but at least I wasn’t on a mountain bike! I had trained for months to get used to the more hunched over position of the road bike (though not nearly as “aero” as the position of athletes on their triathlon-specific bikes). I had bought the bike shoes and adjusted to the clipless pedals (where you ride clipped in to the pedals for supposedly greater pedaling efficiency). I had even trained in a fair amount of headwind on rides down to and along the beach during the winter months in L.A., but this wind was simply unforgiving. It was then I came to a decision. My odds of making the bike cut-off seemed utterly bleak. But…I was here. I was in the midst of an Ironman race. I had trained quite a lot for this. So I realized that all I could do was the best I could do. I announced my plan to myself: I will keep going until they tell me to stop. Decision made! I rode the steadily uphill path through constant headwind for around 17 miles or so. Then, I reached the turn-around point at the top of the hill, and proceeded down the Beeline Highway opposite all of those climbing uphill. What was moments ago a headwind now became a tailwind for me and I flew down the hill, the reading on my speedometer gloriously ascending, reaching and then exceeding 25.0 mph. I kept pedaling all the way down the hill and back into town where I looped around one of the Mill Ave. bridges and turned back onto Rio Salado for loop #2. I heard Samantha yell out my name and caught a glimpse of her, this time accompanied by her dad and stepmom who had driven up from southern Arizona to meet her and witness the spectacle that is Ironman. I glanced down at my computer for my average speed: 14.0 mph. Thanks to the downhill and the tailwind, I had caught up! I was still in the game!!! I commended myself on my decision to keep going through the gloom and doom of the beginning of the ride – it had paid off.
Now, having done the loop once already, I knew better what to expect. Fortunately, the wind calmed down some – it was still present, but not quite as severe. This meant that the tailwind on the way down also wasn’t as strong, either, but by the time I finished loop #2, I was still maintaining my 14.0 mph average speed. I saw Samantha and company two more times in rapid succession as I finished the second loop and made my way around to start the third. They cheered with great enthusiasm – they must have realized the catching up I had done and/or how close the whole thing still was. In addition to the 5:30pm cut-off, there were two additional cut-offs you had to make before that in order to continue on. The first was you had to reach the 76-mile mark (basically you had to start the 3rd loop of the bike) by 3:00pm. I had done this with about 19 minutes to spare, but the real killer was going to be the next one. You had to reach the 93-mile mark by 4:15pm, and the whole way going was uphill, the same 17-mile stretch I had already climbed twice before. I continued pushing, the whole time checking my watch intently and wondering am I gonna make it??? I knew if I made the 4:15pm cut-off the odds were very much in my favor I would make the 5:30pm one, as it would be all downhill from there. But it was going to be a teeth-gritting fight the whole way up the hill.
A word about the heat. I should tell you that I witnessed many instances of the effects the weather was having on some of the athletes out there. I saw the inevitable person changing a flat tire or sprawled out on the side of the road as the result of what appeared to be an accident of some kind. But I also saw several times the sight of an athlete sitting atop a stopped bike with his head down. I occasionally saw someone simply lying flat on the ground, moaning or otherwise displaying severe discomfort, possibly from cramping or dehydration. I had found salvation in the form of a product I had been introduced to in the days just before the race.
Prior to arriving in Arizona, if you would have asked me what my #1 concern was about my first Ironman race I would have told you: “making the bike cut-off.” However, once we got there, just standing around in the dry desert heat immediately dehydrated and exhausted both Samantha and me, and I became seriously concerned about the weather I’d be facing, to the point where it dwarfed all of my other race concerns. Fortunately, though I never once used salt tablets during my training (or in my life, for that matter), I had the sense to look into them. Down at the expo, I listened to the spiel of a guy hawking a product he invented himself called SaltStick. I listened to his whole sales pitch and it seemed to make a lot of sense. A single tablet contained almost as much sodium as a 20 oz. bottle of the Gatorade I was drinking, plus electrolyte replacements that rivaled the Gatorade Endurance formula, as well. I knew from experience that I could only handle so much Gatorade in hot weather in a race situation before finding it totally disgusting and craving only water for liquid replacement. And I also knew the importance of proper salt and electrolyte replacement, especially in extreme heat. I would need every advantage being out there all day long and facing the kind of weather the forecast had called for. My only hesitation was the fact that I had never used them and therefore did not know how my body would react to them. Almost every source I read from warned not to try anything new on the day of the race that you haven’t already tested successfully in training – this applies to any and all equipment, and certainly food and drink choices. The sales guy assured me (of course, it being his product and all) that it was highly unlikely my body would react poorly to mere salt. I decided it was worth a shot. I swallowed a pill back at the motel and it seemed fine. I tried emptying out another pill into some water and drinking it that way, but the taste was not particularly pleasant and I knew it would only be worse in the heat, so I decided to simply swallow the pills whole come race day. And swallow them I did, taking one every half hour during the entire bike course, skipping only once. I ended up tossing one of the two bottles of Gatorade I had brought with me during the ride in favor of an extra water bottle, so it was clearly the right decision for me. Another right decision for me was the use of the Camelbak. Even though I was one of only a handful of folks wearing some such thing (most likely due to the extra weight and/or burdensome nature of them on your back all day long), it was a no-brainer for me. I had used it on every single training ride I had done and knew quite simply that I would do an infinitely better job of hydrating with a tube right in front of my face than I would relying just on water bottles I would constantly need to replace. I refilled the Camelbak at a couple of aid stations and also partook of the handy sport-bottle containers of water that were provided and between the two did a marvelous job of staying sufficiently hydrated throughout the day, effectively beating the heat in that regard. Others clearly had either been not so smart or not so fortunate. Motorcycles, race support vehicles, and ambulances patrolled the course throughout the day and were kept very busy.
Through sheer will (and the good fortune of not getting sick, injured, or having equipment difficulties) I gave it my best effort the whole way up the Beeline Highway for the third time, and lo and behold I made the 4:15pm cut-off with somewhere between 5-10 minutes to spare. I did it! At the aid station just past this point I saw another casualty – a guy lying on the ground and being tended to who was clearly in bad shape. I felt bad for him – it looked like his race was over. But somehow, I still felt fine! I’m convinced the salt tablets had a lot to do with it, along with my being impeccable about hydrating and sticking to my nutrition/fueling plan despite how the heat had rendered many of the granola bars I ingested a gooey mess. I finally could relax some on the downhill stretch for the first time the whole ride with the confidence that I would almost surely make the overall bike cut-off at this point, barring any mishaps. My cheerleading squad saw me again close to the finish of the bike, and I shook my head from side to side when I passed them as if to say “My God!!! How close was that?!” As I went through the chute leading back to the transition area, volunteers were poised to catch me and they held my bike steady as I dismounted, and then took the bike away for me as I wandered over to the transition tent once again, dazed and amazed and with a bladder in need of emptying. My chip time (I later noted) indicated that I finished the bike course in 8:05:44 and that I made the 5:30pm cut-off with less than 11 minutes to spare. I relieved myself, then relieved myself of all of my bike gear and slowly gathered my running gear and got dressed. I reached for some Vaseline to spread on my thighs to once again avoid chafing and dipped my hand into a jar of wet, hot, sticky, and very watery gunk! Disgusting, but I slapped it on nonetheless, staining my running shorts probably forever. I put on my cap and a fresh pair of sunglasses, replaced my bike clothes and equipment in the gear bag, and was nearly reprimanded by one of the volunteers: “You better get out there. You’ve got three minutes to get on that course – they are strict about this!” Huh? I thought my only concern was finishing the bike course by 5:30pm, but this guy was making it sound like I had to be on the run course by 5:30pm. I didn’t screw around, and was directed to the path that led me to the start of the run. I made it to the run course by, apparently, minutes! All day long I wondered if I would even see it, and here I was. Unbelievable. Once again, Samantha caught my attention with her cheering, and finally I could acknowledge her with more than a passing wave. I greeted her with a big hug and a kiss, and gave an enthusiastic hello to both her stepmom, whom I had never met before, as well as her dad, who was holding up a sign for me. “Twenty six miles to go!” I said, and resumed, hardly believing these words myself but intent on seeing what was possible.
Now, here’s the thing. It was hot outside. Still. Damn. Hot. In fact, it seemed that here in Tempe 5:30pm was possibly the hottest time of the day. I now faced a marathon, which I needed to complete within six and a half hours to become an Ironman. I’ve done 3 marathons in my life, with finish times ranging from 4:40 to 5:02. However, these were not done after, say, going for a 2.4-mile swim and then a 112-mile bike ride (in the wicked heat, or otherwise)! One thing I’ve learned about the marathon distance is the importance of pacing. I looked around at my fellow back-of-the-packers, those who had also just made it onto the run course in the nick of time, and saw that many were already trying to run. Fools, I thought! Are you out of your minds??? Why do this to yourself in the heat? You’re crazy! (a relative term here, but still). My approach was: relaxxxxxxx a little! Eeeeeeeaaaase into it. After all, we’re talking about 26.2 miles. AND…it’s friggin’ hot! Take your time! Let your legs adjust a bit. Then step up the running some when the sun goes down. This was my plan, anyhow. And I did just that. Short bursts of jogging, very gradually increasing the duration and frequency of them. But plenty of fast (at least as fast as possible) walking.
Again, I had done the math ahead of time. I knew that I needed to keep a pace of just under 15-minute miles to finish by midnight. No point in wrecking myself. I finished the first loop (of three) of the run, and the sun didn’t go down until towards the end of that. Once it did, the temperature became quite pleasant. Perfect for a little evening stroll! And so, true to my plan, I picked up the pace a little on the second loop. It was here, if memory serves, that I saw a guy in front of me with “79” on the back of his leg. Each athlete is body-marked with a magic marker before the race begins with his/her race number on each arm and age on the left calf (except for the pros who are marked with a “P” there). “79” could only be one guy: Frank Farrar, the oldest dude on the course. As I reached him, I said, “Man, you are an inspiration! How many of these things have you done?”
“Thirty-three,” he replied.
Pause for a moment and take that in, if you possibly can. Thirty-three Ironman races. It’s like trying to grasp infinity.
“And,” he made a point of adding, “I started when I was 65.”
A thirty-something woman nearby, from Simi Valley it turned out, said to me upon hearing this: “And I thought I was bad-ass having run 10 marathons…” The lesson of relativity, especially in this curious world of endurance athletes, is truly endless.
I forged ahead. Frank had one of his knees bandaged up and seemed to be struggling a bit, but God bless the guy, was still going. I kept noting the time on my watch and saying things to myself like: You’re four hours away from being an Ironman. Keep going!
Now is as good a time as any to mention that a huge part of a race like this is the truly amazing and altruistic staff of volunteers. As far as I’m concerned, anyone’s success in an event like this does not happen without them. Providing everything from encouragement to sponges, ice, water, and food, they are the saving grace of every athlete out there, and in combination with the amazingly enthusiastic crowd of spectators, turn what could be a ritual of masochism into one giant outdoor party. I continued taking the salt tablets, though not with the same discipline as on the bike, and eagerly accepted fruit, pretzels, water, and chicken broth in cups (desperate times call for desperate measures, even for near-vegetarians like myself). And most important, I kept moving. In fact, I can honestly say that I never once really felt like I wanted to stop (aside from stopping to pee, which I did plenty of times on the run). I was tired, sure. But hey, I was here, it was an incredible atmosphere, and with each step I was closer to reaching this strange goal I had set for myself. You’re three hours away from being an Ironman!!!
Toward the end of the second loop, it was a little annoying as everyone cheering you on tells you, “You’re really close!!! Almost there!!!” And see, here’s the thing: this was true for many, even most of those out there. But it wasn’t true for me. I still had another loop to go! I could hear Mike Reilly – the “voice of Ironman” – announcing with great gusto the name and hometown of each new Ironman who crossed the finish line. His voice was not far away from me geographically, but still a full loop away in reality. I ambled onward still.
Shortly after finishing my second loop of the run, Samantha magically appeared from up above, waving down at me. I waved back and, noting the time on my watch, shouted, “It’s gonna be reeeeeaaaallly close!!!” The time was 9:50pm. Here’s some simple math: I had six hours and thirty minutes total to complete the marathon. That averages out to two hours and ten minutes for each of the three loops. I had just recently finished the second loop, and had exactly two hours and ten minutes ‘til midnight! This meant I had to keep up exactly the pace I had kept for the first two loops, or better, if I was to reach Ironman status. It could not be closer. I knew I could easily miss it, by minutes even, but was still very determined.
I kept my eyes peeled for the next mile marker, and checked my watch to make sure I was on schedule. The pack of runners was considerably sparser on this third loop as, unlike the previous loops, it consisted only of those like myself at the back of the pack (and no one a full loop ahead of me). All I could do was keep moving, and keep the pace as best I could. I reached Mile 20 right around 10:30pm. Still just on target for finishing by midnight (or, I should say, at midnight)! Six more 15-minute miles puts me there. Of course technically I had 6.2 miles to go, but at this point I was counting on a burst of energy to come from some mysterious place deep within once I saw the 25-mile marker, and it surely would propel me to the finish line in a do-or-die frenzy.
The next task: I must reach Mile 21 by 10:45pm. I continued on in some kind of raw, primal state, keeping only my goal in mind. Willing myself to keep moving, and trying whenever possible to jog if I felt doing so would make me faster (it wasn’t always clear this was the case). I kept walking and the path spilled out into an area heavily populated by spectators. Suddenly I reached a fork. I took the path to the right but realized it was not the correct one, so I backtracked. Then I took the one to the left and realized it also was not the correct one. What’s going on? Where’s the course???!?!?
I would say panic ensued, but I was too tired to either label it as such or even feel the full extent of it. I was definitely, however, distressed. I asked random people around me, “Which way does the course go?” No one knew. I must have looked like a little boy lost in some big crowd desperately looking for his mommy. I found a volunteer and asked but he did not know. I found another one and he asked me, “Which direction did you come from?” I headed toward the path I had emerged from, pointing all the way. He then asked, “Did you come over the bridge?” He seemed to know the route.
I thought about his question and was entirely stumped. I had no idea. Bridge? Hell, I couldn’t remember a damn thing about where I had been. It was all I could do to keep moving and look out for the next mile marker. Finally my memory kicked in. “Yes!” I told the man. “I did go over the bridge, because after crossing it I went over those wooden boards on the downhill stretch immediately after.”
His face registered that he knew what I was referring to. “You were on the bike course,” he told me.
“What?!” I said, in disbelief.
“You were on the bike course.”
How? I wondered. How did that happen? I never once questioned where I was or thought I might not be on the course. Everything seemed right and familiar. But I supposed that, fatigued as I was, it would have been easy to perceive wooden boards as being familiar without recalling exactly when it was I had previously seen them.
“There wasn’t someone out there pointing the way?” he asked, already sensing the answer.
I nodded no, wondering if there should have been, and gave him a look of utter helplessness and dismay.
“Come with me,” he said, and led me back in the general direction I had come from, but more alongside the lake. I followed him. We walked for a while. Every second that ticked away was irretrievable. I had no leeway here. My watch read 10:47pm. I wondered where he was taking me. Is this it? Is he taking me to some authority where I will have to turn in my chip and be taken out of the race? We kept going, and then finally stopped. He pointed to the paved path ahead. “Go from here,” he said. I wondered about it for a second, but figured: Okay. He’s sending me this way, so I guess it’s cool. I thanked him and pressed on. But a flood of thoughts appeared. Is this legit? Have I skipped part of the course? What about the timing mat – did I miss going over one? If so, is my time going to be recognized as legal? Where in the hell on the course am I now? I scrutinized every inch ahead for the next mile marker, but only saw those from the previous loops, Mile 6 and then Mile 13, if memory serves. Not much help. I kept walking and walking. Finally, I reached an aid station at 11:00pm. I asked the folks manning it, “Where’s the next mile marker?”
“Oh, it’s just up ahead,” a guy said. Again I glanced at my watch. That would have to be Mile 22, leaving me an hour to do the remaining 4.2 miles, which would be cutting it awfully close.
“No,” he replied. “That’s Mile 21. You’ve got 5 more to go!”
My heart sank. “Mile twenty-one???” I instantly knew there was no possible chance in the physical world I’d make it in time. Sure, I could easily manage 12-minute miles if I hadn’t already been exerting myself for the past 16 hours. But at this point, it would have taken everything I had just to maintain 15-minute miles. Whereas motivation had never been lacking throughout the course of the day, my legs immediately informed me in no uncertain terms: We’re done. Your race is over. There was no way those legs were going to carry me for 5 more miles without any semblance of a chance of receiving a medal and being officially deemed an Ironman. Had I not made a wrong turn somewhere like I did, I am certain I would have continued on to the end, even if it meant crossing the finish line after midnight. I would have tried my best, and though I may not have been an “official” Ironman, at least I would have known I had completed the whole course. But getting derailed really did a number on me. There was no argument from my brain. It logically concurred with my legs on the matter. My race was over.
There was a very young woman who was seated in a chair resting at this aid station. She had stopped at this very point when her throbbing knee had informed her that her race was over. She appeared to have no problem accepting this, even having come all this way not to finish. A car had been called to pick her up, and when I conceded that I was done as well, a guy on a walkie-talkie called my bib number in and I was granted a ride in the same vehicle back to the finish area. The driver arrived and, once we were in the car, collected our timing chips from us and called our status in, as well. I made small talk with my fellow non-finisher, who seemed to be handling the whole thing remarkably well, and the conversation was a temporary distraction from the awful feeling of defeat which sat there inside the pit of my stomach like a six-ton weight. It was a pain I knew – that feeling of having given something everything you possibly could, having committed yourself heart and soul, and yet still coming up short in the end.
When the driver dropped us off and we got out of the car and said goodbye to each other, the worst was about to come. The finish line was one huge display of celebration. Both the music and the announcer were shockingly loud, and at once I saw a stream of athletes emerging from the finish area, each one wearing a medal. That’s when it stung the most. That was the sight that crushed me. I should have been among them, and I wasn’t.
But now I had to find Samantha. I wandered around the finish area looking for her, fingers in my ears to brace myself from the blaring speakers around me. I was told I had to walk all the way around to access the bleachers where the spectators were assembled to watch the finishers come through. Not good news for my legs, but I had no choice. I finally made it to the bleachers, and within a few moments I saw her. I waved to get her attention, and she saw me, probably not where she was expecting to. I mouthed to her, “I didn’t make it.” Exhausted and devastated, I tried to maintain some dignity. She came down and said, “My dad and Kathie are still here. Let me go get them.” I was quite surprised, thinking they had long since gone back to the motel to go to sleep, especially since the last time I had seen Samantha from the course it had just been her. But her dad and stepmom had been really enjoying themselves and were so caught up in the excitement that they were staying out ‘til midnight to see me reach the finish line. With them present, I was that much more determined to save face and not fall apart. I told them briefly what had happened, and they greeted me with perhaps some sympathy but much more with enthusiasm and admiration for my efforts. They had come back to the race from the motel in their own car, and so we soon parted ways so they could go back and Samantha could help me tend to the task of retrieving all of my gear before the two of us headed back ourselves.
“I really wanted to be an Ironman,” I said softly.
“You’re an Ironman to me,” she said.
And then she was her characteristically magnificent self, helping me collect all of my stuff from the transition area and driving us back to the motel. All of my aches and exhaustion came to light upon arriving in our room, and I felt like a total mess and craved a shower but was utterly depleted of energy. “Would you like me to give you a sponge bath?” she offered. I have never heard such glorious words in all my life. How did I find this woman? Ironman or not, what I am without a doubt is one lucky man.
When all was said and done, I did not meet my goal of completing the Ironman in the allotted time. I did, however, complete the 2.4-mile swim course, the 112-mile bike course, and over 20 miles of the run course. In fact, though not all of it was on the run course, I would estimate that I did a solid 21.5 miles of walking and running before throwing in the towel at 11:00pm, 16 hours into the race. Not bad. I was particularly proud of making the bike cut-off while enduring the elements as they were, and the fact that I took good enough care of myself throughout the day to still be able to continue on after that. In the days that followed I had bittersweet feelings about the race. I still felt the sting of disappointment, but also felt good about what I had accomplished. Even if I had not veered off the course, it is still unclear whether or not I would have made it to the finish line by midnight. It would have been excruciatingly close, though. I’m convinced that had I finished, I would have been the last official finisher, which of course would have been glorious! The last recorded finisher made it in 16:55:40, and I have no doubt I would have come in after that. But speculation is just that. And the fact is I did get derailed and it did cost me my shot at an official Ironman finish that day. Was it due to an absent person who should have been there pointing the way where I unknowingly slipped off the course? Or a missing sign indicating the proper turn? Or was it simply due to a confluence of factors, such as my being so fatigued I somehow missed a directional signal which did point the way, and that it was late, dark, and there weren’t any other bodies on the course for me to follow who might have prevented me from straying? Ultimately, the result is the same. It was an unfortunate bit of circumstance. However, any number of other things might have gone wrong to ruin my race, and did for hundreds of other athletes out there.
Of all of the triathlons, running races, and cycling events I have participated in, this is the only one in which I am marked with a dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish). But I sure wasn’t alone. Lee Gruenfeld, a columnist on Ironman.com, posted an article about the event a few days later in which he stated: “Temperatures in the mid-90s and enervating winds on the outbound leg of the three-loop bike course conspired to plant this season’s opening event firmly into the record books as having the third highest dropout rate in Ironman history. Nearly 18% of the field failed to make it to the finish line.”
There simply are no guarantees, no matter how prepared, trained, experienced, deserving, or “ready” one might fancy himself (how’s that for a life lesson???). And of course, that is part of the Ironman’s appeal. It is one hard race!
So…what does all this mean? Well, like many things in life, it means for a person whatever she or he decides it means. Now that a couple of weeks have passed, the feelings of disappointment have faded considerably and been replaced by positive overall feelings about the experience. Not only was it an amazing day, but it was an exciting and rewarding process going through all of the training and planning to get there. I got myself into excellent physical shape, put my body through the ringer, and lived to tell. My main reason for doing this in the first place was simply to see if I could. I did not receive a medal or finisher’s certificate to show for my efforts in the end. But I did get to have an experience in which I went all out towards a difficult goal, gave it my wholehearted best, and proved myself capable of a hell of a lot. The inevitable question is: Will I make another attempt to complete an Ironman sometime in the future? It certainly is a huge commitment of time, focus, energy, and funds. The only answer I will commit to at this moment is the same as the slogan for Ironman itself: “Anything is Possible.”
P.S. I first heard of Lew Hollander when I checked the results of the Ironman Arizona race online and discovered that he was, at age 77, the oldest finisher that day.