Ironman St. George: May 7, 2011
Three years after my first attempt at completing an Ironman, I found myself on the beach of Sand Hollow Reservoir this past Saturday, about to get into the water to begin Ironman St. George. More than anything, showing up for this race was an exercise in courage.
For starters, take an e-mail from the only guy I knew that had done the inaugural race in St. George last year, himself a very accomplished triathlete and multiple-Ironman finisher:
“St. George. You need to take SERIOUSLY or don’t go. The water will be 52 to 58 degrees. I did no cold water training and lasted 10 minutes a year ago there. They had to carry me out. I read the 50 year charts on the lake AFTER the event. It is cold that time of year period. There is NO warm possibility. Over 100 guys were hauled out – my guess. I plan on returning PREPARED some day.”
In blissful ignorance, I had no idea just what I was getting myself into when I signed up for this race a year ago. Let’s face it, any race at the “iron” distance (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run) is plenty intimidating, but the more I read about St. George online the more I discovered its reputation, after only its first year on the circuit, as being perhaps the toughest of all of the Ironman courses in North America. Exact figures varied among the firsthand accounts I read online, but it seemed clear that the bike course featured at least 6,000 feet of climbing and the run course over 2,000 feet! Realistically, for me, finishing this race was a long shot. I did plenty of wavering on whether or not to even go, but in the end Samantha and I planned a vacation around it that included visits to Bryce Canyon and Zion beforehand, so the odds were I would have a great time regardless of how the race turned out.
Amazingly, I would say that I was calmer this race morning than at any other triathlon I have done. I suppose there is something to be said for practice (though only my second attempt at an Ironman, this was my twelfth triathlon overall). I knew the routine, and got to the start plenty early so as not to feel at all rushed. Once all of my tasks were completed in the transition area (filling my bike tubes with air, placing my food and drink on the bike and in my jersey, visiting the Porta-Potty, changing into my wetsuit, putting on my timing chip, etc.), I was able to make my way over to the swim start with minimal pressure or angst.
The anticipation in the days leading up to the race and especially the night before was by far the most nerve-wracking part of the whole experience. Okay, that and the very beginning of the race: the initial plunge into the cold water as we seeded ourselves into position behind the start line, and the frenzy of the mass start right after the cannon was fired at 7:00AM! But thankfully it wasn’t long at all before I settled into a comfortable swimming rhythm and adjusted to the water temperature. Once you begin racing, you are faced with the immediate task at hand, and you act in accordance with whatever that is. Nerves fall to the wayside.
To be sure, the swim was not as cold as last year’s. The water temperature had been hovering around (a relatively balmy) 62 degrees in the mornings preceding the race, and it was announced in the transition area race morning that it was 62 degrees for the race start (I later read the official live reports online that stated that the water was, in fact, 58 degrees at the start, but either way I found it to be perfectly manageable). I was equipped with my brand new wetsuit and two additional new products purchased specifically with a cold swim in mind: a neoprene skull cap (that also covered my ears) that I wore underneath my race cap, and “aqua socks”, which are allowed if the water temperature is 65 degrees or colder. I will definitely use the skull cap in future open water swims. I cannot say the same for the aqua socks, however. Though they came in handy for navigating the rocky beach from which we entered the water and provided a certain degree of psychological comfort, the neoprene socks quickly filled with water and remained that way for the duration of my swim. Swimming with what felt like a bloated bag of water and air on each foot did not seem helpful, and any benefit of warmth that the socks may have offered could only be justified in colder water than we were swimming in, in my opinion.
The swim went fine. I swam at my (very slow, by Ironman standards, but comfortable and consistent) usual pace and finished in 1:58:37 (literally one second slower than my swim time in Ironman Arizona!). I came out of the water and as I made a semi-dash for the timing mats in my excitement, those pesky aqua socks caused me to slip (but not fall, thankfully) as I headed over to the wetsuit strippers. Two volunteers greeted me and directed me as to where to lie down. Each one then grabbed one of my legs while I rested on my back and whoosh – off came my wetsuit and aqua socks, which were handed back to me as soon as I rose and regained my equilibrium. I headed for the Bike Gear Bags, scooped mine up, and proceeded to the men’s changing tent, where another volunteer sat with me and offered to help in any way he could. I dumped the contents of my bag onto the floor, found my towel and dried off, and began changing into my bike clothes. I had come up with an idea the night before that proved very helpful to me in the changing tent: on the back of an envelope that I tucked into my gear bag on race morning I had made a list of not only all of the things I needed to remember to put on, but the sequence in which to do so. In all of the excitement of reaching the transition area, with my heart rate likely through the roof and general feelings of disorientation after 2.4 miles of swimming, it was immensely helpful to not have to put any thought into this and just follow the directions in front of me. You might think this detail to be incidental, but I was out of T1 in exactly nine minutes (as compared to my 14:49 T1 time in Ironman Arizona).
I was off on my bike a few minutes earlier than I was in Arizona, but I was going to need every possible advantage to make each of the four cut-off times on this bike course. I had not done as much training volume-wise as I had for Arizona, but I had managed to ride distances of up to 100 miles in training and, unlike with Arizona, I also did some significant climbing-specific training rides, including one in which I totaled 6,700 feet of elevation gain over 56 miles (about the same amount of gain as in this course, but in half the distance). You might think this would ensure I was adequately prepared for St. George, but I knew all too well my key limiter: speed. I could do long rides, and even very long uphill climbs, but was I going to be fast enough? My training rides suggested that the answer to this was no, but there was only one way to find out for sure!
In the transition area before the race, an announcement was made to this effect: “It’s going to be a hot one out there today, folks. Whatever your expected finish time may be, you’re going to need to let go of it. Today is going to be about survival, about getting to the finish line.” In addition, I had spoken with a number of athletes at the expo who had done the race last year, and there was one common thread to their advice: take it easy on the first loop of the bike, or you’ll have nothing left for the second! I also knew that one of the classic mistakes people make in an Ironman in general is going out too hard on the bike in the beginning. You MUST conserve energy for the long haul (not to mention leg power for the marathon that comes after!). This is all fine and well in theory. The only problem for me was I had no wiggle room. I couldn’t afford to “take it easy” – for me, each cut-off point would be a race against the clock!
The day before the race, Samantha and I drove the 43-mile loop so that I could get a lay of the land and have a better idea of what to expect on race day (thinking this would be helpful). The ride was beautiful – the scenery was magnificent, colorful, and majestic. And do you know what else it was?
The drive around the canyon went on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on – it felt like it would never end. Rather than boost my confidence, experiencing this ride in the car (it took a long time in the car!) all but crushed my morale.
We do this TWICE? You have GOT to be kidding me.
There were numerous hills along the overall long, slow climb, some of which were even noticeable in the car. We got to “The Wall”, a one-mile-or-so relentlessly steep stretch at something like an 11%-13% grade, where one-word signs of encouragement had been posted on the ground throughout with messages like: Strength. Courage. Endure. People at the expo assured me: “Don’t worry about all of the climbing – you’ll make the time back on the downhills.” Okay, if you say so!
Anyway, there are 21 miles to ride before you even get to the first loop. The beginning was easy. In fact, I was averaging about 15 mph, and I found myself inflating my goals right from the get go. This was, of course, stupid, and I quickly came back down to earth as the course slowed down my average speed.
The volunteers and spectators were awesome. Some were purely entertaining. There were two guys dressed in super-hero-type tights from head to toe (one was all-blue and one was all-green, if memory serves) jumping up and down and flailing their arms about wildly as they cheered us on. Another woman just kept screaming at the top of her lungs for every cyclist that passed by – keeping that up for who knows how long. There were kids who, when they saw me, shouted: “Ironman! Go, Ironman!!!” which cracked me up and brought a big smile to my face. When I encountered spectators on my way down a hill, I felt like a superstar whizzing by (it wasn’t quite the same if they happened to be stationed on an uphill grade – but they cheered me on anyway).
The first cut-off point was at Mile 21 – you had to get there by 11:30AM. This was not a problem. In fact, I had set my own goal of reaching that point by 10:50AM at the latest in order to keep pace enough to make the other cut-offs. I no doubt was working too hard too early on, but I felt I had to. (My results confirm this instinct: we rode over the first mats at Mile 23, and as we did our times were recorded for the first bike split. My chip time indicates that I completed the first 23 miles in exactly one hour and forty-two minutes, a 13.53-mph pace. From my post-race vantage point I can see, based on my swim and T1 times, that in order to finish all 112 miles of the bike on time I would have needed to keep a minimum average pace of 13.38 mph overall).
As I rode the first loop, I was passed by numerous pros and some seriously capable age-groupers who flew by me at a good clip (for them, it was the second loop!). The cool thing about triathlons is there is serious camaraderie out there, and a number of “elites” offered encouraging words to those of us struggling through our first loop. This really does help keep your spirits up, as I experienced at Ironman Arizona, so I was always grateful for this, regardless of how I was feeling physically.
The course got a lot lonelier once we exited the residential areas and the spectators disappeared. After that we only had each other for support as we ascended the long, long path up to Snow Canyon. It was hot. Not a hint of a breeze. And not surprisingly, there were a number of people having problems. I saw a woman get back on her bike to continue riding after an apparent stop and I offered words of encouragement to her: “Way to keep going!” She told me she had been hit by a man from behind and, when I asked if she was okay, she said, “No, I think I may have a concussion.” I insisted she tell me her race number as I passed her so I could ask for help at the first opportunity. At several points I saw race personnel coming to the aid of athletes or already assisting them. The more I rode, the more the course was strewn with casualties of one kind or another. The most ominous moment was when an ambulance came roaring down the canyon walls in the opposite direction from us with its siren lights spinning and alarm shrieking at full blast. I continued riding.
Finally, I looked up and saw a stream of cyclists ahead ascending a monster of a hill, looking not unlike a roller coaster slowly making its way to the top of what would be a free fall on the other side.
I put my head down with resolve and began climbing, breathing harder and moving slower but keeping the pedals moving. I climbed and climbed and climbed. And then I climbed some more. Finally, I made it over the top and coasted downhill for a stretch. Woohoo!!!
There were not many mile markers populating the bike course (maybe only every ten miles, if that, it seemed), so I had to rely on my Garmin to keep track of my progress, and I had fumbled with getting it going at the start of the ride, so its readings were not exact. Still, I was acutely aware of the next bike cut-off: I had to reach Mile 64 (the end of the first loop) by 2:05PM, or I was out of the race. It wasn’t looking good.
I kept going, and finally, somewhere around Mile 46 (my memory is a little hazy here), I came upon a familiar one-word sign posted on the side of the road: Strength. Wait…..a…..minute. The realization began to kick in. That last hill I did? That-was-not-The Wall!
THIS was The Wall!!!!
A number of people were now walking their bikes up the hill. I thought: Okay, it looks like I’m probably not going to make the cut-off. So, I am setting a new goal for myself right here, right now. I WILL RIDE THE WHOLE WAY UP THE WALL. I WILL NOT GET OFF MY BIKE AND WALK! It helped counter the disappointment I was suppressing to have this new ambition, however meager in comparison to finishing the whole bike course. I kept true to my word. And it really wasn’t that hard. I had done much longer climbs than this in my training, even if The Wall was pretty damn steep. I could climb, and I could ride for a long time – speed was my limiter!
I was just shy of the Mile 50 marker when I saw a guy standing on the shoulder of the road with his head down, holding his stopped bike. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“No,” was his reply. “Do you have any salt?”
I pulled my bike over just ahead of him and walked it down to where he was. It was the first time I had gotten off the bike since I first mounted it at the Bike Start line.
“My legs are cramping like you wouldn’t believe,” he said.
I nodded my head. I believed.
“How many do you need?” I asked, reaching into my jersey for my salt pills. I was reminded at this moment how helpful these were, as I had not experienced any cramping at all.
“I don’t want to put you out,” he said, sincerely not wanting to interfere with my own race.
I smiled. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m not gonna make the cut-off”. I poured a couple of pills into his hand, and asked him if he needed any water. He said no, and then thanked me. It felt good to be able to help him out, redemptive even to be of some small use to another person out there. I got back on my bike and continued up the hill.
I looked at my watch and did more calculating and it seemed impossible, at this point, for me to make the next cut-off. I would have to make up some incredible time on the downhill that concluded the loop, and even then it was still pretty doubtful. With this realization, I started to let my nutrition slide. It was really hard to motivate myself to eat my disgusting, half-melted semi-edibles as it was, but now there seemed very little point in doing so (this was a dumb move, because I still had a good bit of riding to go just to finish this loop, and I needed the calories). Almost as soon as I passed Mile 50, I felt the first wind of the day. Before long, it picked up in momentum, and by the time I began the descent offering views of the breathtakingly beautiful Snow Canyon, it got gusty (I later learned that these gusts reached 22 mph). And yes, this was a headwind. So though I was technically going downhill, there were times when it didn’t even feel like it. So much for making up lost time. For ten miles straight I rode into the wind. I didn’t dare get on my aero bars, as I was already a little wobbly on my way down the mountain as it was. Now I knew for sure I wouldn’t make the cut-off at Mile 64, and the truth of the matter is this: I was relieved. I had promised myself I would go as far as I possibly could or until the race officials stopped me from continuing, whichever came first. Had I made the cut-off, I’d have felt obliged to keep going and, honestly, the thought of having to do that loop a second time that day, even if I could have taken a break first…I couldn’t even imagine it. It would have been pure punishment, like a sentence for some heinous crime. I reached the bottom of the hill, and kept waiting for someone to stop me, but no one was there. Soon enough I reached two sets of differently colored arrows directing us: go to the elevated path to the right to the Finish, or stay to the left to do the Second Lap. I stayed to the left and continued riding. Finally, there was a guy in the middle of the road waving his arms vertically up and down. “You have to stop!” he said.
I nodded and slowed down, but he said it again: “You have to stop!”
“I know,” I replied. “I just need to get off my bike safely,” I assured him. Did he think I wanted to keep going, and was trying to trick him or something??
I dismounted, and the guy wrote down my race number on his list and retrieved the timing chip from my ankle. I joined the assembled group of others who had been stopped – my people, so to speak. My watch read 2:26PM, so I was a solid twenty minutes past the cut-off time. No arguments from me! We congregated and waited until there were enough of us to fill the shuttle so they could drive us and our bikes to the finish area. I watched as a guy who came by about five minutes after I did was totally bewildered about having to stop. It seemed he truly did not know about the cut-off and was visibly disappointed when it was explained to him.
There was some confusion about where exactly on the course we were. My Garmin suggested that I had already passed Mile 64, and that this was closer to Mile 65. There was some consensus among others that it was Mile 66. But one thing was for sure: we had not yet gone over the second mat, so our chips did not record our times beyond Mile 23. We would receive no official credit/recognition for finishing the first loop. The second Bike Split was at 66 miles, so the next mat couldn’t have been very far off. They could have at least set up shop beyond the timing mat to collect us, I thought. But it was what it was. Incidentally, for what it’s worth, my Garmin reports a total of 3,777 feet of elevation gain for this much of the bike course. My best approximation based on the Garmin’s readings is that I completed roughly 65 miles of the bike course in 5 hours and 19 minutes (an overall pace of 12.22 mph).
Once in the shuttle, we chatted with each other about the day and I, for one, congratulated everyone just for showing up and making it as far as we did. A volunteer who rode with us in the van concurred that it was “more than most people could have done” and told us he was very impressed with all of us. It was a bittersweet moment for each of us, I’m sure.
I was treated to a massage and pizza (GLORIOUS PIZZA!!!!) back at the finish area – I can’t even begin to describe how good this was. As the day wore on, it felt like it was just getting hotter and hotter (temps were in the low 90s). The weather seemed to me to be identical to what I experienced at Ironman Arizona in April 2008. I simply marveled at those who were about to start the marathon in these conditions (not to mention the first of the pros who came in at the finish!). It was kind of beyond comprehension to me, other than the fact that I knew if I had made it to the end of the bike course in time, I’d have been one of them, and would have tapped into some previously unknown reservoir of determination, inspired by just the possibility of becoming an Ironman by day’s end.