So on the plane to Phoenix, I asked myself a question.
"Why are you going to Arizona?"
Given my complete lack of training for the past month, this seemed like a good question to ask. Between illness and injury my training since Longhorn 70.3 was nonexistent, leaving me feeling unprepared and hugely uncertain. Long runs in the prior 4 weeks, 0. Long bikes in the past 4 weeks, 0. Longest straight swim, 1500. It was as if my season ended in October and I forgot to tell myself. So I wasn't even close to being in top form.
The question hung in my head until about mid-flight.
"Why are you going to Arizona?"
Then an answer came and it surprised me.
"You are going to Arizona to get stronger."
Prior to my race I wasn't sure what that meant but at various points during the 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile run things were definitely clearer.
For an Ironman newbie like me, the Arizona swim is visually and logistically daunting. The out and back 2.4 mile course followed a gently curving shoreline. In the days before the race I walked across the Scottsdale Street bridge several times and each time I thought, "Dude. That's far." But it wasn't just swimming almost to the edge of the horizon and back that had me worried. Arizona would be my first MASS swim start ever. I don't know how many of you have ever done a swim with 2000 other participants all starting at the same time, but as an Ironman virgin, this was just added another challenge for me to face. Looking at starts from prior years on YouTube, the Arizona swim looked more like a massive death match held in a washing machine than a triathlon. Also Arizona has a "wading" start. You are already in the water when the cannon goes off. The thing about this is you are in the water for a full 15 minutes prior to this. Race morning water temps were about 62 degrees.
I hadn't raced (or trained for that matter) in temps that cold, but opted to go with a silicone cap under my race cap. This turned out to be a good move for me keeping my head comfortable for the whole swim. I lined up in the back determined to stay out of as much of the frenzy as possible and thinking I could have an easier time sighting buoys. The only flaw in this strategy is that it failed to take into account my swimming has actually gotten a bit better. About half way to the turn around, I had caught a good deal of the age groupers and while not quite the melee I'll assume present at the race start I then had to contend with navigating around people while staying on course. On the way back, someone kept slapping at my feet which triggered cramps in both calfs. Later another errant arm would slap my left hamstring causing another cramp there as well. I came out of the water with cramps in both legs but had a solid swim effort where I managed to maintain a solid pace for me the entire way. Even with the cramping in the water I was able to hobble into the changing tent and then get out on the bike.
The bike was a three loop course and unfortunately the cramps from the swim would force me to change my ride plan. While the right leg warmed up after the first turn around on the bike course at about mile 18, the left calf and hamstring stayed tight and sore the entire 112 miles. And for some reason both knees became sore during the bike. My guess is because of the trauma to my hamstrings my quads were overcompensating putting stress on my knees. I kept having to get off the bike at every other aid station to massage my hamstrings and calf and give my knees a break. At this point I decide to look at the bike leg as a 112 bike tour and not stress over it. I managed to cover all 112 miles this way but I figured if I was going to finish the whole race this was a way to give me the best chance at completing the course. From this point on all time goals were forgotten.
Once back in transition from the bike, I was pleasantly surprised to find I could actually run, though I could still feel the twinge in my left calf and hamstring. I ran the first two miles like I was running a 5k, looked at my heart rate and forced myself to slow down and walk through the aid stations. This worked well until about mile 13 when the tightness in my calf grew from the size of a pebble to the size of a fist. I stopped to work it out and ran 5 more miles when my legs just completely gave out. The walk from mile 18 to the finish was long and painful. And I was resolved to walking up to the line but somehow found the strength to trot across.
In retrospect, it all seems surreal. I was strong in places I didn't expect, making decisions that got me through a very, very long day. But I was also patient and surprised when I wasn't strong at all like the second loop of the run where I had no sense of time having been completely out of gas at the end of the first loop. But somehow I managed to run the second loop at a steady pace. In the closing moments, I had to marvel at the fact I was still moving even though the day hadn't played out as I'd planned - shoot my whole year didn't play out as planned - I was there and I actually completed an Ironman. Still processing that one...
I came to Arizona to get stronger.
But the strength I found wasn't at all in the places I expected.
The real strength I found was from all of the energy from everyone I came into contact with throughout the day. I really got a sense that no one does a race like that without some help. Help from family, friends, training partners, doctors, massage therapists, race volunteers (over 3000 for Arizona, almost 1.5 per triathlete - all of whom were absolutely amazing), spectators, and other athletes. And I think that's why I like tri's so much. It is the sense of community I feel when I race or train. No matter what your goals are or why you race, everyone is really pulling for you to meet or exceed them. And that's pretty cool.