May 07, 2008

Ironman Arizona Race Report - or - Man's Search For Meaning

If you dig deep down inside the human psyche - if you strip away the body, the bones and all physical semblance of being - if you delve beyond the mind and intellect and throw away the loose sands of knowledge and experience – all that remains of us is desire.

We are desire.

Amidst the scraps of all the rest, there is nothing but that glowing ember of desire that drives us forward. We challenge ourselves further, we drive ourselves deeper and, in turn, the ember burns hotter. What we do with that ember is up to us; either stoke the flames or douse it, the decision is our own.

When we increase our struggles, the decisions on how to handle desire become more fragile and more tentative. As we challenge the limitations of our physical being, we find ourselves balancing precariously on that ember, teetering on the edge between accomplishment and failure.

It comes as no surprise that the challenge of Ironman racing far exceeds our physical capabilities; it is fueled by nothing more than that ember and the decisions we make to support it.

Let’s face the facts, the human body was not designed to travel that distance in that manner. There has never been any study anywhere at any time that has claimed Ironman distance racing is good for the human body. It’s not. Us Ironman racers, we subject our bodies to some of the most absurd conditions. And for what? A t-shirt? A finisher’s medal? Or is it that increasingly remote feeling of accomplishment that we try so desperately to harness. Like a strung-out junkie, we push harder and deeper to relive that moment we call “success”.

We race Ironman to feel good.

We pay to compete because we believe the pain will make us feel good; it will make us feel like we’ve done something with our lives. The pain will prove that we have grown. The pain will stoke our ember of desire. The pain will set us free.

At the 2008 Ironman Arizona, there was pain. In a couple of minutes I’m going to tell you what that race was like and hopefully I can effectively relate how horrendously difficult it was. More importantly, hopefully I can do that in a manner that doesn’t get you bored. Yes, this is long, but if you’ve ever stopped by my site before, you understand that I really never got the “short post gene”. So enough with the pre-race warm-up…


THE SET-UP

I’d wanted to compete in an Ironman for well over a decade. In 2006, when I finally made the commitment, I chose Ironman Lake Placid. It is the hilliest, prettiest and, arguably, the most difficult Ironman course in North America. If I was going to put my body through this challenge, I was gonna make damn sure I had the hardest challenge possible. After all, I not only wanted to brag about doing an Ironman, but I wanted to ensure that I appeared muy macho in the process.

I had an amazing race at Ironman Lake Placid. Though I tend to live my life swimming in the anxiety-ridden pools of yesterday and tomorrow, for that one day of racing, I was completely and utterly in the moment. I was living my dream. It was spiritual. It was incredible. I wanted to hold on to time, to squeeze every second of that race until it choked to a standstill. There was pain, of course. Pain is inevitable. But I embraced the pain. I tried to capture every emotion and every feeling, and store those in my heart forever. I was at peace. I did not worry about going faster or slower. I didn’t care what was ahead or behind, who passed me or who didn’t. I was. And that was perfect.

In the weeks and months following Lake Placid, I began to ponder that experience. I spent long bike rides struggling to stay in the moment, to recapture that feeling of serenity. I wanted it back. I wanted to feel that peace again. But the more I pushed, the further away it seemed.

Like a forlorn drug addict, after you feel that high for the first time, you spend your days spiraling down the rabbit hole of destruction chasing after the hope of harnessing that feeling again. Yet it always remains just out of your reach, so you push yourself further, harder, deeper, you stretch yourself thinner… Because you know that if only for one more time - if you had just one more moment to live in that bubble - then everything would be fine.

* * *

I suppose you can say that I decided to do Ironman Arizona on a whim. Catherine (my girlfriend) and I were out for a bike ride one weekend when she casually said, “You should do Ironman Arizona.” And I said, “OK.”

Two days later I had a five hundred dollar hole in my bank account.

In reality, there are a few reasons why I decided to do Arizona. First, there’s my friend Chris. Arizona was going to be Chris’ first Ironman race. I’ve been a spectator at an Ironman event before. It’s horrendous. It arguably takes more endurance watching the darn thing than racing it. Racing seemed like such a better way to support my friend.

The other reason is that I felt like I’d already be in Ironman shape. I was doing the SOS race in September, where the swim and run distances were practically Ironman length. And then I ran the NY Marathon in November. In my mind, all I had to do was keep my running and swimming steady for 3 months while I beefed up my biking. No problem.

One final gnawing reason was curiosity. My Lake Placid race was such an amazingly transforming experience, I wanted to know what happens on number two. I wanted that feeling back.

So I ran, I biked, I swam. I trained solidly for months on end making all the sacrifices every other Ironman racer makes. And, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, I found myself standing in Tempe, Arizona the morning of the race wondering how the hell I got there.

PRE-RACE

There was nothing that happened out of the ordinary before the race to get me overly nervous. Sure there were some fears of leg pain, of getting sick, of the unknown, of all the usual pre-race gobbledy-gook. But there was nothing really dramatic to get me worked up except, maybe, the weather.

Ironman Arizona is known for its strong winds. I’ll tell you more about that later, suffice to say, I’m light and I’m weak. If I auditioned for the movie “The Kite Runner”, I’d probably be cast as the kite.

High winds aside, there is also heat. Just my luck, Ironman Sunday was forecasted to be the one day of the month that got hit with a freak heat wave. Amidst a month of 80 degree days, Sunday’s highs were supposed to be 94 to 98.

Remember all the hoopla from the last Chicago Marathon? You know, it was where somebody died and another fifty were sent to the hospital because of the heat. Yeah well, it was only 88 degrees then. Compare that to the Ironman Arizona forecast and it seems downright balmy. Add 10 degrees and an extra 114.2 miles to the Chicago fiasco and, yes Virginia, there is cause for concern.

That said, when Chris and I got to the race site, it was a beautiful 70 degrees with clear blue skies.

The pre-race activities were relatively uneventful. You know the drill….Drop off special needs bags, freak out, open special needs bags, look inside, close special needs bags, pump up bike tires, use porta-potty, get my body numbered, try to stretch, act casual, put on wetsuit, exchange nervous banter with bike-rack mates, meander in silent anxiety to the swim start like neoprened cattle being herded to slaughter.

SWIM
The day’s challenges:
* Kicking, fighting, pushing, shoving, biting, punching, smacking
* The sun. You can’t miss it.
* A dramatic inability to move in a straight line

The Ironman Arizona swim is a mass water start. A mass start at an Ironman is like a cross between the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Sea World and the Chicago riots of 1968. What happens is that 2,000 people dressed like seals float around in the water for a few minutes listening to a pretty pathetic version of the national anthem and then, at the blast of a canon – KA-BLAM!! – they all start punching and kicking, crawling and clawing, shoving and biting. In the triathlon world, we call that a “swim”.

The Arizona course is a one lap swim that has you heading east in Tempe Town Lake for a little over a mile before you turn around and trudge the rest of the way back to the swim finish. As you can see, I made a special note to tell you the swim starts by going east for over a mile. I didn’t say “up the lake” or “down to the bridge.” I said east. You swim east.

The race starts at 7am. Sunrise in Tempe is at about 5:45am. This gives the sun, which rises in the east, a little over one hour to put itself in the perfect position to completely blind you for half of your Ironman swim. Great planning.

But, wait, I’m jumping ahead.

I got into the water about 15 minutes before race start, had a lame attempt of warming up and then piddled my way over to the starting line where I stayed about halfway back and proceeded to tread water, pee, and tread water some more (in the process pushing my pee over to the people treading water next to me, who were, in turn, probably pushing their pee back at me. Ironman starts are essentially a pee pushing party.)

As the minutes ticked by, the crowds around me started to thicken. I kept moving to open spaces, trying to find that perfect spot where nobody would touch me at the start. However, despite my best efforts, I continuously found myself surrounded by a herd of other water treaders. Naturally, I kept slowly inching myself towards the front of the group where there seemed to be more room to maneuver. As the national anthem came to a close, I looked up to find myself just a few rows back from the starting line.

I was ready, it was time, I had found my space, my peace…. and that’s when the starting gun went off.

KA-BOOOOOOOMMMMMMM!

Even here, on my second time around, the start of an Ironman is somewhat surreal. The starting gun is not merely an indicator to go, it is a symbol of the journey. It is a distinct line that separates before from after; it marks the space between training and racing. It is a split second in time in which your entire history, your months of training, your heartache, sacrifice and drive, all fuse like a sub-atomic reaction, catapulting you forward with a blast of energy right smack into your destiny.

They say that Ironman is the intersection between your greatest fears and your wildest dreams - that’s what happens at the starting gun.

With the sound of the blast still ringing in my ears, I desperately tried to let go of my wacked-out philosophies on athletic firearms, put my head in the water and began moving forward.

Aside from Ironman weekend, no motor boats and no people are allowed to be in Tempe Town Lake. Consequently, the lake’s water is quite clean – or at least it tastes that way. Unfortunately, the water is also a dark shade of brown with the clarity of double chocolate bundt cake. Visibility doesn’t extend much further than 24 inches, which pretty much means that you can’t see your own hand in front of your face when you’re swimming. It also means that you can’t see anybody else’s hand until it bashes you in the ear. Oh, and the feet in front of you, you’ll see those just about the time they thwack you in the face.

The Ironman Arizona swim is violent like, say, “Reservoir Dogs”, as a for instance. In fact, the first 1.2 miles of the swim was, without question, the most frustratingly violent swim I’ve ever done in my life. From the moment I started swimming, hands were grabbing my legs, feet were kicking my head, bodies were swimming over me, I was being punched in the shoulder, the back, the face. Every stroke I tried to make landed on the body of another person. Every move left me packed in tighter.

I’ve had my goggles kicked in many races before and knew if they were kicked off in this race, in this crowd, in this mayhem, I’d be screwed. So I tried to keep my head up to avoid the feet in my face. But every time I lifted my eyes, I was blinded by the relentless glare of the rising sun (don’t forget, we’re swimming east).

Head down, head up, nothing was working. I tried to swim left, to swim right, I tried to speed up or slow down. I kicked my feet harder to dissuade those behind me and punched the water stronger to clear those in front. I tried to stay on the inside lane, hugging the buoys and doing my best to maintain a straight line (which, for the record, didn’t work). I swallowed masses of water. And as I choked and coughed, I swallowed more. I was trapped, the walls of claustrophobia were shrinking around me.

This is going to end, I told myself. These violent parts always end. Five minutes went by. Then ten. Twenty. And the violence didn’t wane. I wanted out. I wanted to quit. I tried to relax but the frustration was overwhelming. I looked up to find a hole, any room for movement, but all I could see was a molten mass of people. We were wildebeest storming across the Serengeti, pushing and shoving to escape the jaws of the lion. I’ve seen this television show before, I know how it ends. I am the weak one. I’m gonna be eaten. I’m too young to die! I don’t want to be a wildebeest!

As I reached the turn around, the mass got more aggressive. I pushed myself through, kicking my feet as a warning to those behind, forcing my hands to let others know I’m here to stay.

All I wanted to do was get through. I wanted this to stop. I wanted out.

I tried to stay as loose as possible. I didn’t care about my swim time anymore. In less than 30 minutes the race had turned into a battle for survival. Left arm, right arm, punch, kick, breathe. Left arm, right arm, punch, kick, breathe. I tried to get into my rhythm. Focusing on my form, trying to stay in the moment. Left arm, right arm, punch, kick, breathe. I’d get a few seconds of space – left arm, right arm – and then just as quickly would be trampled by a small pack – punch, kick. I tried to breathe. I swallowed more water.

Somebody. Please…. Make the bad man stop.

I soon looked up and saw the swim finish. I don’t know how it came so quickly, I didn’t really care. I just wanted this to stop, so I started sprinting, pushing harder to reach the end.

Thank God, I said as I climbed out of the water.
Thank God that’s over.

I got my wetsuit peeled and, as I jogged towards the transition tent, I spotted a waving, bouncing, jumping, screaming, loving Catherine. I love you! she yelled at me.

I lifted my hand. I love you too, I said in a whisper.
Thank God that’s over.

My swim time: 1:06

TRANSITION 1: swim to bike

I jogged into transition with my T1 bag in hand, and found a seat in the far corner. I emptied my T1 bag and prepared myself for the bike as smoothly and efficiently as possible. I lathered my body in lotion, put on my shorts, nutrition in my jersey, donned my helmet, grabbed my glasses, wiped the dirt off my feet, put on my shoes. No talking, no gabbing, no battle stories. I took a big breath, and a long exhale. Time to go.

BIKE
The day’s challenges:
* Hot. Really really really hot
* Hurricane-like winds
* A stomach that just wouldn’t cooperate
* A never ending desire to give up

If you’re looking for a beautiful, scenic and relatively easy bike course, this ain’t it. You’ll hear all sorts of people spreading all sorts of rumors that the Arizona course is as piece of cake. It’s not. Don’t listen to them. They don’t know what they’re talking about. They probably forgot to take their medication.

The Ironman Arizona bike ride is three loops around a primarily ugly 37 mile course (and I say that with all due respect to the cacti). Everything starts all nice and fine as you travel through the outer edges of Arizona State University. When you pass by the stadium (home of the Fiesta Bowl, which I remember going to at least once, though I don’t remember being there – if you get my drift), you may even convince yourself that it’s going to be a scenic ride. But it’s all a trick.

Shortly after passing the stadium, you’ll wind your way through 8 miles of industrial city streets, passing by a vast array of mini malls, gas stations and run down ranches. Just about the time when you feel like you can’t handle the beauty any longer, you reach the Beeline Highway.

The Beeline Highway makes up 20 miles of each 37 mile loop. It’s a steady 10 miles of uphill through an extremely deserted desert with abandoned buildings and lonesome cacti. Even the tumbleweed are looking for some company. You continue to climb steeper and steeper until you reach the turn-around, at which point you turn around, follow a 10 mile descent and a winding path on the same silly streets back to transition. Cross a bridge, turn around again, cross back over the same bridge and it’s time to do the loop another time, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. (Actually, you do pass go – the start and finish lines - twice on this ride. But there’s no two hundred dolly for you, so don’t bother bringing your wallet.)

As we discussed earlier, previous IM AZ races were marked by a pretty strong tailwind that began the moment you got on the bike and continued through half of each loop, pushing you up the 10 mile climb to the Beeline turnaround. Naturally, after turning around at the Beeline Highway turnaround, you’d be slammed face first into a headwind. Tailwind uphill, headwind downhill. That’s how it’s been for the past few years.

For reasons unbeknownst to me, this year was different.
Which sucks for me.

The moment after I mounted my bike and left transition, I got body slammed by a massive wall of wind. I don’t mind climbing. I can deal with rain. But I despise headwind.

SHIT! I screamed in frustration, though the wind was so strong, my words just got thwacked back into my face, which was fairly humiliating, all things considered.

I tried to push hard, thinking maybe if I bike really fast the wind will go away. When you’re out on an Ironman course, logic doesn’t always take the drivers seat. Naturally, my heart rate started climbing. And still, despite my efforts, people were passing me by like I was standing still. This is fucking ridiculous! I yelled at nobody in particular and everybody in general.

After about a mile of this frustration, I realized I’m not going to win a fight with the wind so I decided to try and relax. I had 8 miles before the Beeline Highway and a long day in front of me. If I could just take it easy and spin my way through the wind, maybe the bike ride won’t be as annoying as the swim.

I tried to pedal as easily as possible but with every turn I made, the headwind got worse. What started as a 10 mph wind, gradually turned to 15, then 20mph. It may have even gotten to 25 or 30, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Steady and smooth, I told myself as masses of people cruised by. Calm and relaxed, I reminded myself as other riders effortlessly streamed past. All the while, the wind was ripping my determination to shreds.

By the time I got to the Beeline Highway, things had gotten worse. I tried to stay relaxed but it sure is tough when you’re climbing a 10 mile hill with over 20 mph winds. Every pedal stroke was a struggle. With every minute the turnaround seemed further away. My friends started passing me by. How are you feeling? they’d say, somewhat concerned at my lack of speed. I suck, I’d respond just quiet enough for them to not hear me.

What did you say? they’d ask curiously.

I’d just smile and nod, desperately trying to grasp hold of my ego as it deflated into a pathetic mush that dribbled onto the side of the road.

My back began to hurt, my legs grew tired and my frustrations amplified. Then just as I vowed to never do an Ironman again, I reached mile 17 of the bike: the turnaround.

It’s amazing how one’s mood can change on a dime during an Ironman race. When I turned around, I was greeted with a storming tailwind to carry me down the 10 mile descent. Within seconds I was at 20 miles per hour. 25. 30. It was effortless, I was flying. I smiled. I love this!! I screamed as if I completely forgot that I wanted to quit the damn race two minutes earlier.

I quickly made my way back to town, finished the first lap and, with a wave and a scream from Catherine, head out on lap number two.

I’m not quite sure where it all started. One moment it was a cool-ish ride with ridiculous headwinds, the next moment I found myself riding in the world’s largest sauna with one of those super-sized Hollywood hurricane fans blowing in my face.

The headwind didn’t die down much on loop two, but my legs had grown more tired, my back was in more pain and somebody really turned up the thermostat. It began to get hot. Really hot. Like so hot that you don’t even sweat – the sweat evaporates the moment it hits the air. The forecasters had said there would be a high of 94 to 98 degrees but this felt much worse. (As it turns out, when I looked at my watch after the race, it listed the high as 107 degrees).

I poured water on my head, down my back, on my arms. It felt great for a few seconds but, alas, the water would dry within five minutes. My body began to overheat so I’d continue to pour. Soon enough, though, my water bottle got hot. I tried to drink. That didn’t work.

Lesson number one: swallowing hot water in 100 degree weather during an Ironman is not good for the stomach. I grabbed a cold Gatorade from the next aid station and took a quick sip. I nearly threw up.

[cue police siren]
Danger Will Robinson. We’ve got stomach problems. This is definitely not good.

There’s a movie called “The Runner” that documents the journey of a man running from one end of the Pacific Coast Trail to the other. Mexico to Canada. As he’s taking his first steps in the beginning of the journey he utters some words that immediately stuck in my brain.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

There I was, struggling through the Ironman Arizona course, I had a sick stomach and an overheated body; I was a slow rider with tired legs and sore back climbing a 10 mile hill with a 20 mile headwind in 107 degree weather. This fucking blows.

I was in pain and I was suffering.

When you’re riding through the heat of the desert, the mind can play tricks on you. When you’re tired and drained, when you can’t eat or drink, when your ego has been torn to pieces from a three hour steady stream of riders passing you by, when you’re overheated, overwhelmed, over-wrought, there is nothing more you want to do but quit. If you just stop moving, maybe the pain will go away. If you just stop, maybe everything will be fine.

Beginning on that second loop I struggled more than I ever have on a bike ride. I fought the wind, I fought the heat, I fought the pain, I fought my mind. There was no fun in my journey. There was no enjoyment, no excitement. STOP! my brain was ordering the rest of my body. STOP! STOP! STOP!

Don’t listen, I told myself as I tried to focus. One pedal stroke, then another. I concentrated on each muscle contraction. I painstakingly forced the crank to turn in one more rotation. I cursed the heat, the headwind, the hill. I cursed my back and my legs. I cursed the course, the bike, the sport. I cursed the Chipotle billboard in front of me. I wanted to find serenity, to keep moving forward with peace of mind. But I struggled and pushed and fought and argued. I wrestled the constant desire to give in. I battled to the death for every single goddam inch of the race.

The wind blew, the body ached, the day grew hotter. I tried to drink, but after sitting in 100 degree weather for three hours, my liquid had nearly come to a boil. My stomach grumbled. I tried to eat pretzels but that made it worse. I nibbled on fig newtons and gagged.

Sick. Nauseous. Can’t eat. Can’t pedal. Can’t move.
I can’t do this, I said. It’s too hard.

And then suddenly, my legs stopped moving.

They just quit. They had enough. It was not a conscious decision; they didn’t consult me, they just stopped on their own. Immediately, the wind slowed me down. The riders who were right behind me passed me by. I dropped my head. I resigned. My ember of desire was dimming.

This is it.
I’m done.

My bike began to teeter from the speed. I slowed towards a stop. And just as I began to lose my balance, my legs began again. Again, no thought or consultation, they just began moving. One excruciating pedal stroke. And then two. Slowly, methodically, they moved. I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but they moved.

NOOOO!!! My brain screamed. NO!!! YOU NEED TO STOP!

The pain got worse, the legs more tired, but still they moved. And as I turned around on the downtown bridge, with one more lap to go, I bid Catherine farewell yet again and pedaled forward in utter disbelief, into the wind, into the heat, back into the depths of hell.

The second lap of my bike was horrendous, but the third was worse. I struggled and suffered. Every second of every moment I had to continually convince myself to push through another pedal stroke. And then another. I pedaled slowly and slower. I strived to stay moving. I played games with my mind. Just to the next sign, I’d say. The next block, the next turn, the next traffic light. Just take one sip, one bite, a little nibble. I broke my race down to infinitesimally microscopic segments. I battled my mind to forget what was ahead of me and to focus on now. I wrestled with the acceptance of immediate accomplishments. I’m proud of you, I’d say. Good job, good effort. But it meant nothing.

There is no pride in the circle of suffering. Encouraging words fall limp and lifeless when battling a flat feeling of frustration. There is no “me”, there is no “now”. There is no peace or serenity. All I saw was a frustratingly long, brutally hot, extremely difficult road ahead of me. How do I pedal another block? How do I finish this bike? How do I run a marathon? I can’t, I can’t.

I can’t.

But still, somehow, for some reason, I went on. I picked a goal and a reward. Just get to the corner and nibble on a pretzel. One more aid station and get some water. Just pedal. Just move. Just go.

Go.

Despite every atom in my body screaming for me to stop, despite every cell laying in resignation, despite everything everywhere, I moved forward. Somehow, someway I finished the bike.

There is a satisfying feeling I usually get when I finish a long, strenuous bike ride. I’m ecstatic to be off the bike, relieved to finish and ready to run. I felt that at Lake Placid, I felt that in training.

There was no ounce of that feeling anywhere for me in Arizona. My soul was drained from that ride. I stumbled off the bike a shell of a man.

Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.
I suffered.

Are you ok? Catherine screamed from the sidelines with a look of dread and concern. Do you feel alright?

Yes, I murmured in a heat-induced daze, assuming she was asking because I went so slowly. I’m fine, I said.

You’re doing great, she screamed encouragingly. All you have to do is manage your nutrition and you’ll get through the run! You’ve got this!

I looked at her. I may have nodded, I’m not sure.

I suffered.


Bike time: 7:12

TRANSITION 2: bike to run
The men’s change tent in transition two was a site I will not soon forget. There were about forty people in there, none of them moving. They were drinking cups of cold ice, volunteers were massaging some feet. They weren’t moving. They weren’t leaving. It was a morgue.

I had entered the Tent of Resignation.

As I dragged my tired body to a chair, I knew how they felt. This was the place where people go when they can’t go on. My body was drained, my stomach was revolting. I was dehydrated, feverish and frustrated.

I put my hands on my legs and hung my head.

I took a sip of cold water and stared at the person massaging the feet next to me. I slowly changed into my running shorts. I took out my visor and running shoes. And I sat and waited. I waited for the world to pass me by. I waited for the run to finish. I waited for me to quit.

As I sat in limbo, I knew that it was no less than 95 degrees outside, there was no shade, no relief. Suddenly the man next to me began to speak.

I can’t go on, he said to the volunteer. I’m staying here. I’ve had enough.

I looked over and stared him in the face. I looked into the depth of his eyes, searching his soul for a mirror of me. We stared in silence. And just as suddenly, an ember burned brighter.

He is not you, it said.

I dared not look into his eyes any further. I quickly put on my shoes, stood up and left the tent.

RUN
The day’s challenges:
* Very very hot
* Blister on right foot
* Ouch

The moment I stepped out of that tent, I committed myself to keep moving forward. Despite the pain or the frustrations, I promised myself that I would run the entire race. Yes, I would walk part of the aid stations, but there would be no walking in-between. So at the very moment I stepped out of that tent, before I even got to the timing mat, I began to run.

But just because you’re moving doesn’t mean it feels good.

If you’ve ever run in intensely hot weather you know the feeling. It’s like you’re suffocating. It’s as if somebody wrapped a pillow over your face and dropped you in the Sahara. Every inhale burns your throat, it scorches your lungs. You struggle to find some escape, just a modicum of shade. But there’s nothing you can do. The more you struggle, the more it hurts.

My legs were tired from the bike ride and my soul felt drained. I turned onto the course and ran towards the crowd of spectators. I searched the crowd frantically for Catherine. I went from face to face, looking for a ray of hope. Blank stares. Random cheers. No Catherine.

I took a big breath, a sigh of resignation, and moved forward into my next 26 miles. It was then, my eyes focused on the road in front of me, that I saw her. Bouncing, screaming, yelling, waving, it was Catherine.

The most treasured moments in life are those where from the depths of darkness comes light. When the world is piled with despair, there emerges a faint glimmer of hope. I started my run a broken man, fatigued and fearful, and then I saw Catherine.

I ran directly up to her and stopped. I put my hands on her cheeks, pulled her face close to mine and kissed and kissed and kissed. I hugged and held. And for that single moment in time, everything that was weighing me down, all the pain and suffering, the heat and struggle, the fading ember of desire, it all fell free. For once, I was free. I began to cry.

I love you, I said. And though with me I dragged the suffering and pain I had been embracing throughout the day, if for only a few seconds, the touch and sight of Catherine made it more bearable. There was hope.

I began to run my marathon.

The Ironman Arizona marathon consists of three laps of a figure eight course (which I suppose makes it six loops in all). The first loop (let’s call it Loop A) starts at transition and continues for 3 ½ miles until you pass through transition again and head out for the 5+ miles of the other loop (Loop B) which, again, leads you back to transition. After completing that circuit three times, you are rerouted to the finish line and the end of your journey.

Throughout each of the 8.5 mile laps, runners travel across varied terrain, including paved roads, dirt trails and bike paths. Like the bike course, the marathon route is extremely exposed with little shade to relieve racers from the heat. While the 3 ½ miles of Loop A is fairly flat with one short but steep hill near the end of the course, Loop B provides a bit more of a challenge thanks to a surprisingly long hill (about ½ mile) halfway through the loop.

My initial target was to get as close to a 4 hour marathon as possible. I knew that if I could run 10 minute miles for the first lap and slowly pick up the pace through the rest of the marathon, I should be fine. I was only about ½ mile into my marathon when any hope of meeting that goal began to fade.

When you’re already spiraling down a hole, there is a vulture of frustration that circles the mind and wears down the soul. Each negative thought gives birth to another, until you are caught in an endless spiral of decay.

The trick is to fight the vultures. No matter how deep you fall into the darkness, your only hope is to focus on the light. You must continually struggle to climb and claw your way to survive.

As I continued through the run course, my struggles increased. The heat was overwhelming and my legs were increasingly tired. I tried to focus on little goals. I knew if I could just get from aid station to aid station I’d be fine. But I couldn’t help but think of the long road in front of me. I felt overwhelmed at the power of Ironman. I struggled to stay running.

The first loop was horrendous. Though I ran the entire way, the moment I reached each aid station, I slowed to a walk. I drank and ate as best I could despite my growing inability to swallow anything with flavor. No Gatorade, no oranges, no gel, no pretzels, no fig newtons, nothing. I yearned for bland nutrition but the choices were limited. I drank water, I ate salt tablets. And I reached deep into the very pit of my soul to find the energy to start running again.

After finishing Loop A, I embarked on the five seemingly endless miles of Loop B. One turn led to another. A long uphill led to a quad-crushing downhill. At every intersection I expected it to be over, but it kept pushing forward. On and on and on, my mind swirling and fuming. Even when I completed that loop and embarked on my second lap of the course, I was bottoming out. I was angry. Tired. Hungry. Pained. Hot. Suffering. Fatigued. Every step was an effort. Every mile seemed further then the last. I’d struggle, shuffle, move. Get to the aid station and walk. Then, again, battle to find the will to run once more.

Lost in the circling drain of frustration at mile 10, I passed by my friend John. John had passed me early on the bike and, worn out from the heat of the day, was walking the marathon. Seconds after I passed him, he found the energy to pick up the pace and we began to run side-by-side.

There is a power one gets when running with another. It’s not just the conversation that keeps you going, it’s the energy you share. As for us, our energy was negative. We were hot, we were angry, we wanted this day to end.

One thing you should know about me, when I get very frustrated and tired, I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to hear anybody else’s problems. I want to suffer and struggle and wallow in my own private misery. So that’s what I did while I ran along John. But John isn’t like me, I think he liked the company. I vaguely remember him saying “misery loves company” at some point, though I didn’t bother to argue about the pissy, companionless nature of my misery. So on and on he went, talking to me about his day, his challenges, his experience and blah blah blah. He talked and tried to heal. Frankly, I didn’t want to listen. I was too busy suffering. Don’t bother me when I’m suffering.

We can do this, he said at one point. Even if we have to walk, we’ll do this.

There’s no walking, I spat at him like a drill sergeant. We run. Aid station to aid station. Walking is not allowed.

He looked at me in somewhat disbelief of my attitude. Ok, he said in a “what’s gotten up your ass” type of tone.

As we continued running, I began to feel bad for hiding in my prison of pain. I figured I needed to suck it up and talk, at least a little. I dug deep inside and forced myself to let go of my suffering long enough to say a couple words.

Nice day for a run, I said in a weak attempt to act happy. Probably not the smartest thing to say, but ya gotta give me credit for trying.

As we continued running, John started feeling more relaxed so I tried to build off that energy. I tried to calm my mind and clear my head. I did my best to let go of the rest of the day, and let the miles pass me by. And then, somewhere around mile 13, everything changed.

There is something mysterious about that ember of desire. Just when you think the flame has died, something ignites a spark. It may be remote, it may not even create a fire, but it gives light - and hope. And somehow it keeps you moving forward.

Halfway through the marathon at Ironman Arizona, it all started making sense to me. This pain, this suffering, this constant battle to keep moving forward… THIS is Ironman. This is exactly what I trained for. It is why I am here.

When I raced Ironman Lake Placid, I was having an amazing race, feeling great and relaxed all the way until mile 14 of the marathon. At mile 14, everything stopped and didn’t want to move. If I’m impressed about anything from my Lake Placid experience, it’s that I ran the last 12 miles.

At Arizona, everything was different. Twenty minutes into the race I wanted to quit and that feeling never subsided. My swim was the most frustrating of my life. My bike ride was the most horrendous. My run the most challenging. And then, at mile 13, as the sun went down on the city, the ember inside me began to glow. My mind began to clear. My body began to loosen. The drive and determination I have known began to seep into my veins. For the entire day I had been searching for the answers everywhere I could. Finally, I found me.

For the next five miles the balance of energy began to shift. With each step I grew stronger, each mile I grew tougher. I began to encourage John, to drive him harder. We picked up the pace and pushed deeper. For the first time I began to smile. I lifted my head, widened my eyes, straightened my back. I felt a surge jolt through my bones. By the time we got to mile 18, I felt renewed. I was reborn. It was as if my race had just begun. After one hundred and twenty two miles of suffering, I let go.

At mile 19, John couldn’t keep the pace any longer. His legs were cramping and he needed to walk. As I pulled away and bid farewell with immense gratitude, I felt my body pick up the pace. For the first time throughout the entire day, my mind became focused. Aid station to aid station, I went. A quick drink, a quick bite, and I was off.

As I neared mile 20 I ran on the edge of the road to absorb the energy of the crowd. Great job! they yelled. You look wonderful, they said.

I feel great, I replied with a smile and a wave. And slowly I picked up the pace.

My race had changed. After 13 hours and 134 miles, all was good.

Then, fairly suddenly, the blister appeared. One second I was doing fine, the next second I was limping in pain. It hurt and it hurt bad. But, alas, I ran 20 miles of IM Lake Placid with a blister, surely I can get through 5 miles of this course without walking. So I kept going.

There is something about me that is drawn to pain. Especially when running. The greater the pain, the greater my focus and determination. Naturally, as the pain of my blister became worse, I began to dig deeper and focus harder. For the first time in the entire day, I knew I could make this. I passed through mile 22 and 23 with barely a stop at the aid stations. I surged up the hill and barreled back down to mile 24. As I crossed the bridge to mile 25 I could see the lights of the finish line in front of me. I felt great. Amazed, relieved.

I stormed through the last aid station without stopping and picked up the pace. The adrenaline coursed through my veins like a thundering waterfall. With each step I got stronger and faster, pushing harder and deeper. I felt renewed and refreshed. For the first time, I felt accomplishment. I smiled and began to cry.

I passed through the parking lot at mile 26 and…

It seems to appear out of nowhere. You climb the last hill in dark silence, take a left turn and then… Yes.

Yes, a wall of people.
Yes, a thunder of applause.
Yes, a rush of emotion.
Yes.

Yes, it was surreal. There was clapping and there was cheering. I turned around to see, but there was nobody but me.
Yes they were cheering for me.

A tsunami of emotion flooded my body. I became enveloped in tears of joy and disbelief. Yes, I did it. Yes, I survived.

Yes!
I jumped in amazement.
Yes!
I screamed in disbelief.

YES! YES!!! YES!!!!

As I strode the last meters towards the finish, snapshots of the day came flashing across my brain. Yes the pain, yes the frustration, yes the struggles.

Somehow, someway, yes. I did it. Yes I did.

YES!!!

* * * *

The conditions at Arizona were absurd. My watch showed a peak of 107 degrees with an average for the day of 95 degrees. The wind seemed well above 20 miles per hour. I’ve heard rumors that the race had the highest DNF rate of any Ironman in history (somewhere between 23% and 28%, depending on who’s statistics you want to believe).

I am proud of myself to have finished. And though I tell myself that the race should be proof that I can withstand anything, I don’t yet believe me.

Shortly after I finished the race, I looked down to notice my right shoe had turned red. I removed the shoe to see a blood soaked sock. Upon hobbling to the medical tent, I learned that, as a result of running on that blister, I had stripped all of the skin off my toe. The week to follow became extremely painful, despite the antibiotics, crutches and pain killers. And though that injury soon healed, there is a deeper part of me that is still trying to heal and find the meaning of my difficulties in Arizona.

As humans, when we encounter life’s toughest obstacles, we strive to find meaning. We want to know how we’re better, how we’ve changed. We want to know in the end if it was all worth it. We want to know why. We want to believe that there is more than a t-shirt and a finisher’s medal. There has to be.

I found a piece of me during my struggles at Arizona. I don’t know what it means or where it fits, I don’t know if I’ll ever figure that out or even care. But deep down inside I believe – I have to – that I am a better man because of it all. And I suppose sometimes that’s all you can ask for.

After all, I am an Ironman. And that’s gotta count for something.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Waiting for your race report was a rather Ironman-like experience. And like Ironman, the payoff was great!

cherelli said...

awesome race report - congratulations!

KodaFit said...

Well worth the wait. That was excellent. Congratulations first and foremost. I like reports that are realistic and don't sugar coat the race, but still keep and element of humor! Well done, I am in awe!

Running Jayhawk said...

This is a simply brilliant account of a less than ideal race day.

Thank you for sharing this part of your journey with all of us. Like kodafit said, it was well worth the wait.

...I'll certainly be revisiting it during my training for CdA09.

stronger said...

It has been a long wait for the rest of us as well- to have the privilege of reading your race report- and not just the time it took between the report and finish at IM Arizona...it goes all the way back to your IM Lake Placid report. Well done, survivor.

A brilliant read.

Trihardist said...

Thanks for sharing, J. I can't really think of how to respond, though. Congratulations doesn't fit; neither does good job. Maybe . . .

Blessings on your journey.

KayVee said...

Wow. What a day you had. I'm crying as I read the last 2 paragraphs of your report. You so eloquently articulate why we do this thing. Thanks for sharing, j.

hantph96 said...

great report. thanks a lot

ChrisM said...

Holy crap

William and Cindy Haynes said...

Amazing, amazing, amazing! This was an incredible race report and from the swim, I was right there with you.

Ironman is on my horizon and I know I'll be there in the next couple of years. I know it's crazy but as I'm reading your post about all the pain and trials, I'm thinking I want to be there... I want to push through the pain... I want to decide if I'll suffer or not.

Thank you SO much for taking the time to write and share your experience with all of us who read your blog... It's a real inspiration to me and I look forward to sharing my first Ironman report with you one day.

Blessings - William

1HappyAthlete said...

Great race and great race report, J.

Well worth the wait.

Glad to hear you didn't give up on a really tough day

Alili said...

OMG I completely missed that you posted this 2 days ago! Okay, now I'll go back and read it. It looks wonderful:)

Alili said...

Allow me to pick my chin up off of my keyboard. I laughed, I cried. It was an epic tale and you lived it. Many congratulations for overcoming the obstacles you faced on the course.

Bravo.

katie b said...

i did my first 20 miler today and although i have no idea who you are, i kept remembering things you wrote about the marathon portion of your race and i just have to say thank God i happened upon your blog...it got me through this hellashish run...quite literally. thank you for sharing, thank you for being a story teller and thank you for being an Ironman...

TriGirl Kate O said...

An amazing story, and so well told. Thank you!

Congratulations. You are an Ironman.

Kathy said...

WOW - what an amazing race report. It was so brutally honest! You would think it might put someone off - all that pain and suffering and stuff... but, it just doesn't. It makes you want to jump in and experience it for yourself.

There are so many things you have written in the last few posts that I can relate too. I find the whole Ironman experience to be so spiritual and so inspiring, that it makes it hard to go back to the real world post-Ironman. I'm still struggling, and am thinking that only another Ironman race might fix it!!!!

Look forward to reading more of your exploits!

Robin said...

I think this is the best Ironman race report I've ever read. You somehow captured all of it - the excitement, the pain, the pathos, the ridiculousness of it all, and the supercedence of the human spirit rising out of that ash pit of experience.

And this is why the word Ironman means something, especially if you've been through it. It's more than the miles, more than the name, more than what people might imagine. It's a reaching down to the deepest part of the human being.

Thanks for sharing so eloquently your journey of a day. And congrats on becoming an Ironman, again.