Wednesday, September 30, 2009


It's that in-between season. Summer's over, weather's starting to get crummy and since I'm not cyclocrossing this year, there's not a whole lot going on for me in terms of specific training. Just kind of a fun mix of mountain biking and running. And world championship watching--how 'bout that Cadel Evans? Nice to see him finally win a big one. And Fabian Cancellara--Madonn! Unbelievable what that man is capbable of on two wheels.

Anyway, since there's not much going on with me, I thought I'd re-run this blast from the past. My race report from my first-ever Ironman, Ironman Arizona in May 2005. Please enjoy.

Unzipping my wet-suit after a half-hour frolic in the chilly brown waters of Tempe’s Town Lake, I was near giddy with excitement. “This thing is definitely doable,” I kept saying to myself.

“This thing” was Ironman Arizona, which was two days away. It would be my second try at an Iron-distance triathlon, but my first since 1984, the summer of “Beverly Hills Cop,” and “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” That first attempt was the long-gone Cape Cod Endurance Triathlon. This was in the days before triathlon wet-suits, and the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean didn’t think twice about spitting me out after mere minutes. Walking back up the beach to my car, I was a shivering, blue-lipped mess spewing a string of profanities that’d make Eminem blush. It’s stuck in my craw ever since.

At Tempe, I didn’t want to repeat that. I knew this wasn’t Cape Cod, but it was April and regardless of what race directors insist (“water temps should be in the low 70s”), experience has told me to subtract about five degrees from R.D.’s estimations. The week of the race, the city’s public works pegged it at 64 degrees.

Thus my barely contained excitement after my practice swim. Yeah, the water was chilly, but not take-your-breath-away-and-never-give-it-back chilly. If I was patient and, as long as my bike didn’t snap in half during the race, I had a strong feeling that once this race was over I could plunk down $40 sans guilt for one of the Ironman Arizona hoody sweatshirts I lusted over at the expo. I’d know I earned it.
At 4:30 race day morning, I sat in the motel lobby waiting for the van that would take myself and about five other athletes to the start-finish-transition area. Mentally, I was willing the night manager to quit with his observations and prognostications about the weather.

“It’s gonna be a windy one out there today,” he said. “It’s been howling like the devil out there all night.” And he shook his head as if in disbelief.

At the start area it was chilly, mid-50s—nothing like the 96 degrees it hit three days earlier—and like the night manager said, breezy. I took care of all pre-race necessaries—body marking, transition bag checking, tire inflating, etc.—and then just kinda killed time. A buzz of pre-race anxiety filled the air, which officials tried to temper with mellow Enya-type music. Perhaps a little too mellow. I was itchin’ for something to pump me up, like “Learn to Fly” by the Foo Fighters, which I’d heard the day before at the expo.

At 6:45, almost 2,000 of us made like penguins jumping off an iceberg and began dropping into Tempe Town Lake. The in-water start was 15 minutes away. Several helicopters hovered overhead but with my neoprene swim cap on I couldn’t hear anything. I conserved energy, floating on my back until I heard the unmistakable cannon boom and thousands of flailing arms began churning up the water. We were off — a pod of 1,816 neoprened mammals chasing a dream, or an age group award, or Kona spot, or just another Ironman finish to add to their list.

With so many swimmers, I’d expected it to be rough going, but it was surprisingly civil. I got clobbered a couple times and doled out my share of unintentional bashings but nothing unreasonable. I found my swim rhythm—as much as I’m capable of while swimming—throwing my lead arm far ahead of me, visualizing what the swim models did in Total Immersion DVD, and letting my lime green ProMotion wet-suit do most of the work. Open water swimming like this is great: no laps to count, boisterous spectators cheering you on for the first few hundred yards, and prominent landmarks to gauge your progress—a shiny Smith Barney office building, the pointy peak with the Arizona State University “A” near the top, Sun Devil Stadium, a smaller baseball stadium, the Rural Street bridge and finally the turnaround buoy. Landmarks were essential because the murky lake’s visibility was nil.

The turnaround made, we now headed into the wind with its accompanying chop. I personally had no problem with it, but afterward I spoke to a racer who told me he got so seasick, he threw up three times. What a surprise for those lucky few fortunate enough to be in the vicinity of the vomiting man! The same landmarks led us back which was good because they distracted from a growing discomfort in my hands and feet. I was getting cold, that pins-and-needles, I’m-losing-feeling feeling.

But I kept at it, until finally I was rounding the last buoy. About 100 yards ahead, I could see swimmers exiting the water. I was going to finish the swim! I was nearly as excited as if I’d finished the entire race. This would be no repeat of Cape Cod. At least my family and I didn’t come to Tempe for nothing.

My swim time was 1:26 and change, a good 12 minutes faster than my most optimistic guesses. (And truthfully, if it’d been 2:19:59, I’d have been happy; just so long as I could continue.)

Out of the water, one of the many wet-suit strippers unstripped me of my suit pulling so hard I found myself sliding 15 feet across a rubber mat on my butt. He yanked with such force, I feared he’d unstrip me of my swim trunks as well, but alas that didn’t happen.

Dazed and thrilled that I’d finished the swim, I walked to T1 like a Hollywood star on the red carpet, taking my sweet time. Meanwhile, all around me was mayhem. Yelling, cheering, screaming spectators rang cowbells and whacked plastic handclappers and those noisemaking baseball bat-looking balloon things. Athletes sprinted by—running like their hair was on fire and the only place they could put it out was the transition tent. I strolled leisurely along scanning the crowd for my wife and son. “Did you see that? I finished the swim,” I wanted to say.

Out on the bike we turned right onto West Rio Salado Parkway and got our first real taste of what the motel manager was carrying on about—the wind. It was a relentless 25 mile-per-hour blast with gusts to 40 mph. (The next day, one of the top finishers was quoted as saying the winds reminded her of those at Kona.) It howled. It whipped. It was like someone pushing back on your handlebars every time you pedal forward, and every once in a while jerking them back and forth for a good laugh.

The bike route was three, mostly flat loops with the bulk of each loop being a 15-mile (one-way) foray out into the desert northeast of Scottsdale then back into Tempe. Laws of physics (or geometry or something) would dictate that we must’ve had the wind at our backs at some time but it sure never really felt like we did.

While pedaling into the wind, I tried to convince myself that I was riding a very long hill. Somehow this made it seem more manageable. Hills, I train on and even seek out—I’ve ridden to Artist Point near Mount Baker a couple times, I’ve done RAMROD, etc.—whereas wind is something I always avoid. Too demoralizing. My mind game seemed to work for I never got so discouraged that I considered quitting. (It’s lucky for me too that I’m not too bright. It was wasn’t until a couple days later that I realized the major difference between relentless wind and a long climb—after a long climb you get to coast and recover somewhat on the descent. No such luck with wind.)

As with all first-time things, one tends to make rookie mistakes. Mine was drinking way too much. Or as the magazines might say, excessive hydration. When planning my strategy, I took too many things into account: Southern Arizona is the hot sunny desert, I live in the rainy and saturated Northwest, the dry desert heat and arid winds will suck all manner of moisture right out of me, etc. My antidote for all this was to drink like a fiend. Thing is, it wasn’t that hot. Seventy-two degrees for a high is kinda pleasant. And while it was windy enough to yank a superglued toupee off a helmeted rider, the course had well-stocked aid stations every 10 miles, and I started out with two big bottles full of GU2O—there was no way I was gonna be thirsty short of pulling over and eating a couple handfuls of sand.

So, what happens when one drinks too much? (Or hydrates excessively?) Anyone? Right; one has to pee repeatedly. Excessively. Over and over. Starting at about mile 65, my Ironman turned into a version of Monty Python’s marathon for incontinents. I was stopping every 10 miles to use the porta-john. Then every five miles to use a bush—dodging tumbleweeds and keeping a wary eye out for scorpions, rattlesnakes and cactus prickers. Then every three miles, cringing in embarrassment by this point. Ah well, what’ya gonna do? At least I could ride with confidence knowing that dehydration wouldn’t be a problem.

Throughout the ride, I ingested many bananas, Powerbars, Gatorade and Fig Newtons. At about mile 80, when I felt I could take no more of such fare, I reached for my secret weapon—a Wendy’s Homestyle Chicken Fillet sandwich that I’d bought the night before and had stuffed in my back pocket. At this juncture, real food tasted dreamy.

Then it was on to the marathon. I’d heard that it wasn’t uncommon for folks to walk almost all of it and still finish within the 17-hour time limit. That sounded fine to me. I’d run for a mile or two then walk.

The winds were still nasty but they didn’t slow you down as much as they did on the bike, where at times I swore I came to a complete stop. And with there being no penalty for drafting, I admit I was guilty of seeking out taller and wider runners who could block the wind. Also, the two-loop marathon loop was protected much of the way as it followed canal-side trails through Papago Park. Reducing my fluid intake (drinking less) and sweating more—it was now the hottest part of the day—I was no longer plagued by copious pee breaks. (Perhaps too much information. Sorry.)

As it turned out, I ran much farther than I anticipated. I didn’t take my first walk break until just after we started the second loop, just past 13 miles. From there it was mostly three minutes of running followed by one minute of walking. I took the time to smell the roses, as it were. After the sun went down, the night sky was lit by runners sporting neon green glow necklaces. It looked magical. Some wore them around their heads like haloes. As we passed the otherworldly sandstone buttes of Papago Park, we were serenaded by howling—the coyotes and wolves at the Phoenix Zoo. Hundreds of poster boards lined Rio Salado, offering encouragement. “Go, mommy!” “Iron Curtis!” “Vaya Miguel, Angel.” Throughout, spectators and volunteers were terrific—always there with a smile, a cup of chicken broth, a “You look good, 1256!” How do they do it for so long, and why? (Thank God they do.)

Originally from New Jersey, I’m an avid Yankee fan and from mile 17 on, I counted down what I had left by going through Yankee numbers—i.e 9 miles to go was number 9, Craig Nettles; 8, was Yogi Berra; 7, Mickey Mantle; 6, Joe Torre; 5, Joe DiMaggio; 4, Lou Gehrig; 3, Babe Ruth; 2, Derek Jeter and finally, 1, Bobby Murcer, my favorite player when I was growing up.

When I could finally hear the loud, pounding music and cheering at the finish line and knew I’d be there soon, I was of course pleased as heck. But a little bummed too; I wished I’d had a cell phone to let my wife and son know that I was just about to finish. I would love to cross the finish line with my 6-year-old son, but Baker was not the kind of kid to hang around in the children’s pen for who knows how long waiting for dad.

As luck would have it, at the final turn with about 100 yards to go, I saw my wife, Jen, in the shadows. She’d not been standing there long. “Mike!” she said in surprise. Then a quick, “Do you wanna run with daddy?” to Baker. When he said yes, the icing had been spread upon a cake that couldn’t have been any more perfect.

I grabbed his hand and we were off down Rio Salado and the finish line. The monkey that’d been on my back since 1984 when I had to pull out of the Cape Cod race was about to be come off. “Rock the Casbah,” a song I love, blared from the loudspeakers (what’re the chances of them playing a song I love?) and when I saw my time on the finish clock (14 hours 8 minutes and change), I started shaking my fist like Tiger Woods after draining one of his impossible chip shots.

I held Baker with my left hand though in truth, it really felt like he was pulling me along. For a fleeting second I considered asking him to slow down. A jumbo screen projected us to the crowd, which cheered wildly and up ahead, the finish line tape was lowered so that Baker could break it with his chest.

This was good. Very, very good, and all so worth it.

PS: I’d earned that hooded sweatshirt I so coveted. But alas, so did a lot of other people. The next morning they were all sold out.

PPS: I contacted Inside Out Sports and they made one especially for me.


  1. What can you say about such a story other than perfect

  2. Wow--thanks, Tim! It was a great day.

  3. Incredible! Inspiring! I can't wait for my race!

  4. Good luck, Josh!