Sunday, February 14, 2016

Ironman Arizona Race Report - Chapter 3: Don't Trip

Some people say, ‘Don’t drown. Don’t crash. Don’t walk’ as the expression I’ve been quoting in my chapter titles during my Ironman Arizona race report. That expression just makes me annoyed. As if walking is a catastrophic (or deadly) failure.

What baloney.

That person who walks during a marathon is the same thing any other person crossing the finish line is: a marathoner.

Walking is not something to be ashamed of. It’s not a failure. It’s recognition that you are still moving forward. That you aren’t giving up. That you’ve got this.

You know what it takes to become an Ironman? It takes not giving up.

As I wobbled my way into T2, I was sopping wet. I wasn’t cold yet, but I think that was mostly because I was too stiff to really have the temperature sink in. All I knew was that only 26.2 miles (42.2km) separated me from the finish line. That thought had me grinning (oh, wait – I’m usually grinning when I race).

But I knew I had conquered my biggest fear: the bike – in the pouring rain, no less. I saw starting the run as being almost home free.

Crazy in hindsight. It is the Ironman after all.

I have to give it to the organizers and volunteers at Ironman Arizona. When the weather turned, they responded on a dime. I suspect I’m not the only one who expected Arizona to be hot and dry that day. But as I approached the change tent, I could feel a blast of warm air coming from it. They’d set up heaters inside the tent to warm up racers. As I entered, a volunteer wrapped me in one of those tinfoil warming blankets. It was like a moment of heaven.

The women’s change tent itself was a mess. It was wet, muddy, smelly and packed with shivering women. Similar to my T1 experience, I decided to change while standing up. There wasn’t really space to sit down – and I couldn’t begrudge any of the women in chairs blocking the way to other chairs. So many looked freezing cold.

Guess that’s one benefit of being from Canada – it didn’t seem so bad to me. I was getting a bit chilled standing in one spot, but overall I felt no worse than I’d expected to feel coming off the bike after 180km.

So I dumped my run gear out on a table. I admit that changing was an incredibly slow process. The ground was so mucky, I stood on my bike shoes to try and keep my feet semi-dry (oh, the mud!).  Sadly, my T2 bag had been sitting outside in the pouring rain, so I found a fair bit of my stuff was damp. Thankfully not sopping wet though. I peeled off my bike clothes, slowly maneuvered my way into my tri-top, shorts, socks and running shoes ….put on my visor, my race belt, and grabbed my handheld water bottle.

I debated extra gear – arm warmers in particular – but I know that I get warm very quickly when I run, so I decided to forgo my good gear since I didn’t want to lose or throw good stuff away later.

It didn’t occur to me until after the race that I could’ve packed some throw-away sock-gloves like I would for a standalone marathon. Maybe next time!

So I wrapped up in the tinfoil blanket, figuring I’d use that as an extra layer until I warmed up – then I could throw it away.

I got all my sodden bike gear back into the bag and handed it off to a volunteer. I exchanged quick greetings with my friend Erin who was in the change tent too, and then headed out of the tent.

It wasn’t raining! Whoohooo!

I stopped at a portapottie in transition (Ewwwwwww is all I can say about that experience), and then headed out onto the run course. Swim and bike down. Just a marathon to go!

T2 Time: 14:28

Yikes. I think I did my first try-a-tri run faster than that transition!

The tinfoil blanket drove me nuts running out of transition, but I admit I was getting chilled by that point, so I tried to find a decent way to wear it without it becoming a nuisance. Can’t say I ever found the best way.

Just outside of T1, they’d opened Special Needs to runners just coming out of transition.

For people who don’t know much about Ironman…Special Needs is something unique to Ironman (and maybe other Iron Distance) races. You get a bag to put some extra stuff in – which you can access mid-way through the bike, and then a different bag that you can access mid-way through the run. You don’t need to stop (I didn’t on the bike), but you have the option.

I don’t know if IMAZ does this normally (usually you’d get access to Special Needs after 1 lap), but given the number of people who stopped (likely to put on warmer clothing no one expected to need until the sun set), I think it was a wise idea.

I didn’t stop at that point, thinking I’d prefer my clean -and hopefully less than damp - socks on the next loop.

Not long out of transition, I ran into my friends Paula and Karen. I think it was Paula caught me in my very trendy outfit. And here I was thinking there was no photographic evidence.
Thrilled to be on the run - Just a marathon to go!

About a kilometre into the run, I warmed up considerably. I shed the tinfoil blanket and dumped it in the trash at the top of a landscaped hill. The course doesn’t have much in the way of real hills, but the cosmetic ones count a lot more after you swim 3.8km and ride 180km.  

I enjoyed the run course when I did a loop of it in 2014 when volunteering – and the same was true on race day. I like that the course winds around the lake for large portions, always giving me things to look at. Plus, this time I had other competitors running around me, so I never felt alone.

The first 5 or so km (maybe more or maybe less) went much better than I was expecting along the paved lake path. When I saw my friend LK – on her way to a spectacular finish something like 4 hours ahead of me – I couldn’t have felt better.

But then the course doubled back along a dirt trail that runs more adjacent to the lake. I actually liked this path in 2014 when I ran it. But this year, there was a big problem.

You see….a dirt path turns to mud in the rain. When I turned onto the path, all I could think was, “Oh, Shit.” (Apologies for swearing, but that is exactly what I was thinking). The whole path had turned into a gross muddy swamp. I picked my way through it, hoping not to trip. I came close on several occasions.

A few other competitors and I joked that we didn’t know we had signed up for the Iron Mudder as we slogged through the mess. Thankfully sans electroshocks.

We followed the muddy and puddle-y path almost all the way back to transition, where we then made our way down to the opposite end of the lake. I remember seeing a sign on a small piece of yellow Bristol board somewhere along that stretch: “Smile, it makes the pain hurt less” – or something along those lines. It made me smile, not that I was feeling pain at that point.

Insert maniacal laughter here.

Really, when it comes down to it, the first 10km of the marathon went perfectly, even with the mud. My legs felt surprisingly good. My pace was strong – hovering under 6min pace per kilometer. I was eating regularly and sipping from my hand-held.

I really did feel good the first 10-14k!
But it’s the Ironman…and anything can happen on race day. And that day – for me – it did.

Around 14km, my back suddenly spasmed. This took me completely by surprise since I don’t have back issues. If anything, I expected my calves to do something – not my back!

Immediately, my back knotted up and began to ache. I shortened my stride and tried to massage it out. This happened not too long before Curry Road (the one real hill on the course), so when I reached the hill, I made my way carefully up the hill, mostly jogging very easy. At the top, I had to stop for a minute. I tried bending backwards over the railing of a fence to try and loosen up my back. This helped, but not much.

Still smiling (and running), but I was starting to hurt.
For the next 6 or 7km, I tried to jog as much as I could, stopping intermittently to try and work the tension out of my back. My pace dropped considerably – the only good thing was that I had some nice downhill where I could let gravity take control. I tried to run as best I could downhill and then just did what I could do on the flat.

Crossing the bridge back, I started to walk a lot more. I noted the sun was getting low in the sky...but at least it wasn’t raining. I wasn’t cold at all. I couldn’t help but smile.

My Dad was waiting for me at the turn to start the second loop. I was so glad to see him!
Dad: How do you feel? Me: If I felt any better, I'd be in Heaven!
Sorry, inside joke.
Despite my reassurances that I felt pretty good - just unable to run because my back was so tight - I am sure he was very worried about me (I don’t think I looked that bad, but I’ll let you be the judge). He suggested a visit to the next first aid tent – but I said that was unnecessary.

To be honest, I was afraid someone would suggest that I stop. Not that they would have, but how was I to know.

And I figured my back wasn’t that bad. By this point I’d figured out what had happened. I am nervous bike rider. For the 100km or so I rode in the pouring rain (especially going above 35km/h down the Beeline), I was tense like there was no tomorrow. That crazy hours-long tension caught up to me on the run and my back decided to make its displeasure known. I knew all I needed was a couple of Advil to help release the tension and I’d (probably) be as good as new.

Alas, I didn’t have any Advil because I’d heard it was terrible to take during an endurance race. In hindsight, I think I took the idea of no Advil a little too literally. Maybe if you were taking it pre-emptively and all day long it would be really bad…but to counteract a real issue, I think I would’ve been fine to take an Advil or two at that point. I wasn’t going very fast by that point after all.

Thankfully though, my Dad was able to help my back a little. I am sure we looked hilarious with him lifting me up backwards to try and get my back to stretch out, but it worked well enough that I felt a lot better. I was able to jog away from my Dad with a smile - even if the jog was incredibly slow. 
Despite my back, I was still laughing and having fun!
I probably shouldn't admit that the minute I was outside of my Dad's sight, I slowed back to a walk...but realistically, everyone could probably tell that from my split times. But I didn't want my Dad to worry about me. Truth be told, much as my back screeched every time I tried to run, I could walk pretty fast.
I passed by transition on the start of the second loop. This time, I did stop at Special Needs, mostly so I could change into dry socks. Miracle of Miracles, they actually were dry – unlike the damp pair in my T2 bag. I slathered some more body glide on my feet to prevent blisters, put on the dry socks, and decided not to take the throwaway jacket I’d also put in the bag since I wasn’t cold at all. My tri-suit was doing me well.

I got back into my jog a bit, walk a bit routine…stopping before the mud-pit section to try and work my back out (yet again) on a friendly bit of fence. Maybe even on a bench. I can’t quite remember. It’s a bit blurry when I did what – although trust me, anything the right height to let me lean against it got utilized. Benches, fences, funny square things I think were electrical boxes. You name it – I kept hoping something would help!

Interestingly, I found the mud-pit section just a bit better on the second time through. Because the rain had been done for a while, the mud started to harden – which was better than slopping through the whole thing. I walked this entire section though, finding the uneven and hardening ground quite precarious and very jarring on my poor back.

As I headed past transition for the last time – and then toward the bridge to get to the opposite side of the lake, I saw that “Smile, it makes the pain hurt less” sign again. This time, I laughed right out loud. I also smiled really big.

Same sentiment - if a different poster
It’s true, smiling helps. It reminds you why you are there – to be awesome, to push your limits, to see what you are capable of. You forget about time and just enjoy the day for what it is: a celebration of all you’ve done to get there.

And for me, I’d been through unexpected race issues once before – and smiling made that race one of the best days of my life.

During my first marathon in 2013, which I ran with a stomach bug (I ate one Cliff Shot Block during the whole marathon because my stomach was so unsettled), I quickly realized I wasn’t going to come close to my goal time because I’d been sick. So I made a new goal: Be caught smiling in every single race picture. I had people amazed that I was grinning well beyond the 30km marker. That made my day. And crossing the finish line was the best feeling ever, regardless of the time.

You might recall my realization on the bike that I could walk the entire marathon if I had to and still finish the race.
At no time during the IMAZ marathon, did I doubt I would finish. At no point did I fear I’d run out of time. To me, that made the marathon something to enjoy as much as I could.

Knowing I had no fear of missing the cut-off meant I could smile through the pain, take time to thank the very kind (and cold) volunteers, to cheer on the other racers…including several Toronto friends who passed me over the last 15km. I was thrilled to see them doing so well. My biggest hope for the day was for everyone I knew to finish and finish smiling.

I can’t count the number of people who paused to ask me if I was okay during the last 15km. I must have looked a lot worse than I felt.
Apparently that's because my back was so tight I was practically listing like a boat about to tip over. So glad I couldn't see myself.
It was honestly at least a dozen, including both racers and volunteers. My friend Erin even paused to give me a couple of salt pills to see if they’d help (sadly, they didn’t – but I appreciated the ability to try something!).

What’s funny, is that while my back refused to let me run, my legs actually felt good. As long as I didn’t run, the pain was manageable. It was when I got it into my head to jog that my back made its displeasure known.

At the bottom of the decent from Curry Road down to the lake, my friend Barry (husband and incredible Sherpa to my friend LK) found me as I passed under the bridge. I was in quite a bit of pain at that point after trying to jog down the long descent. I vaguely recall a nice (and likely worried) volunteer asking if I was okay. And that’s when I spotted Barry. He’d found some Tiger Balm and jogged out to this (very remote) part of the course to find me, and to cheer me and my friend Carole (apparently close behind) on.  He mentioned that I only had about 5km left.

5km left of a 226 km (140.6 mile) journey. It was crazy to imagine how far I’d gone – and how little I had left to go.

With profuse thanks to Barry and the kind volunteer who hovered nearby until I was underway again, I headed into the home stretch.

I decided shortly after seeing Barry that I wouldn’t try and run again until I got to the Finisher’s Chute. I figured it wasn’t worth the rebound pain when I stopped. I would just walk as quickly as I could. And so I did.
I admit I found it challenging not to run. Running is my favourite of the three sports after all. I love, love, love it. But I knew if I tried to run any more, I might collapse before I finished.
And there was no way I wasn't finishing.
A couple of times during that last 5k, I looked at the ring my friend Karina gave me a few years ago. It says: Be Awesome Today. That phrase, my race mantra if you will, has been my motto for life for a couple of years now. 
And as I am always willing to tell people: awesome isn't about speed, it's about attitude. 
That day, I was...with every  step forward. With every smile.

Over the next 5km, I chatted with a number of other racers. We were quite an eclectic mix out there. Men, women, large, tiny, old, young.  All we shared in common was a quest to reach the finish line and the utter determination that we would get there.
There'd be no giving up today.
I talked with several racers over the last few miles, but three conversations really stick out for me.

One woman came from behind looking very strong. She slowed down to check if I was okay as she passed. When I smiled and said that yes I was great and only had a few km to go, I think she was relieved. She wished me well and went on her way.

The second conversation made me realize why the first woman was probably so relieved by my response. This one was with a younger girl (at least I think she was younger than I was). I vaguely recall she was wearing a pink top. I could tell she was getting a bit down…and quickly learned that was because she was on her first loop. She was nervous that she wasn’t going to make the cut off for the second.

We were so very close. I looked at my watch. As far as I could tell, it was 20-30 minutes until 9pm - which was the cut-off to start the second loop. I did the math in my head and figured she could do it. It was maybe 2 or 3 km back to transition, if that was where the cut-off was (I wasn't sure).
Either way, I put on my biggest smile, gave her every bit of encouragement I had – and told her that she could do this – that she could make it, but she couldn’t stop. She couldn't quit. It might be close, but she could make the cut off if she just kept going. I told her to go.
I think my words helped. She picked up her pace. Before long, she disappeared into the darkness.
I smiled. I have no idea if she made the cut off, but from the look she gave when she went ahead of me, I bet she did. I really hope that she finished - that she became an Ironman.

The last conversation I had was with an older gentleman. He was quite slender, but looked strong. We walked together for at least a good kilometre, maybe two. As we walked, we chatted about racing. He’d done several Ironman races in the past. He offered me one piece of advice. He said that if there were other people around me near the finish, I should let them go ahead. That I should savour every moment of crossing the finish line – and to take the time to ensure I had it to myself. He said the extra few seconds would be worth it.

As we got to within one km of the finish line, he went ahead, putting on a great final kick. It wasn't long before he was out of sight.

And then, I was alone.

It was dark. Quiet. Peaceful. The only sounds were my footfalls: Left, right, repeat.

As I strode closer and closer to the finish line, there were no tears. I’d shed those along with any worries I had about not finishing in the last kilometre of the bike. This was pure celebration.

As I turned into the finishing chute, I realized I was still alone.

I started to run. In my head, I ran smoothly. In hindsight, I looked well beyond drunk. It didn’t matter. All I could hear was the roar of the crowd.

A few steps from the finish, I stopped. Despite what friends and family watching – live and at home – thought, I wasn’t hurting when I stopped.

No, I wanted to hold onto that moment forever. I paused to soak in the atmosphere, so I would never forget the feeling. The booming music. The roaring crowd. Cowbells. Noisemakers. People banging on the side of the finisher’s chute.

Mike Reilly – the Voice of Ironman - calling me in.

 “Come on, Jana…just a few more steps…..”

What’s the expression – an object in motion will stay in motion?  Wish I’d thought of that before I stopped just shy of the finish line. But I could see my Dad hovering just beyond the finish – waiting for me to come through.

I took those three steps: by far the hardest ones I took all day. I tried to raise my hands over my head.  

Basking in the moment.

As I crossed the finish line, I heard the words I’d used to get me through some incredibly long workouts: a six and a half hour trainer ride. A 34km run. A five hour brick followed by a 16km run. Whenever I got tired or felt like I couldn’t finish a workout, I imagined Mike Reilly saying those magic words and I found the energy I needed to get it done.

This time, those words were not in my imagination. They were real.

“You are an Ironman”

A very drunk looking Ironman, but still an Ironman!
I bet you thought I’d stop the chapter there, but I can’t leave it at that. As I crossed the finish line, I stopped for the second time. There was no way I was going to get moving again.

My Mom, watching on the live feed tells me I said, “Help me.” Maybe I did, who knows. Certainly I needed help.
And in the next moment, there was my Dad, pushing his way through a pile of volunteers to catch me before I could fall over.
Having my Dad catch me before I could fall. What more could a girl ask for?

Thanks Dad.

Final Run Time: 5:31:04 (59/120 AG, 332/765 Women, 1,493/2,676 Overall)
Ironman Arizona Finish Time: 13:59:16 

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