June 8, 2002
Racing in an Ironman distance triathlon race: 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 mile of cycling, and 26.2 miles of running was an all-day affair. Some people may think a day spent racing at this distance is like a lost day in one’s life. But I approached race day as a commitment of “this is what I’m doing today.” I choose the commitment to race and compete in an Ironman Triathlon. Not every triathlete feels they need to check off the box for an Ironman race. I finally did after fighting this commitment for seven years. “I chose to put a check in the “To complete an Ironman distance triathlon” box. Not the “I want”, “I wish”, “I hope”, “I could”, “I will someday”, “I may”, or even the “No way in hell” box choices. Life is filled with questions to ask and answer, many over and over. Do I stay at the Olympic distance or go long? Do I train appropriately for an Ironman or not? Do I marry or not? Do I have kids or not? Do I go or stay now? Do we divorce or not? Do I change jobs? Do I take a promotion? Move to a different house, city, country, or stay put? How do we raise our kids? How long do I keep on training to feed the competitive beast? Choices and commitments are not easy. These two actions do shape who we are, what we do, where we live, and how we live our lives. Make a choice to do something that matters to you. Be committed to your choice. Make a difference to yourself and others.
Don’t be satisfied with the idea of training for a triathlon. Be committed. Relate to choice, not the event itself, like marriage, kids, and a high paying job with no time. Don’t stop with the satisfaction of thinking about a decision. Analyze, choose, and move forward with the effort to achieve your goals. Thinking is not achieving, be real in the outcome.
Neither before nor since did I think so much about an upcoming triathlon. I thought about the commitment when pushing the confirm button on the race entry. I thought about its time requirement when at work, when falling asleep, when waking up in the morning, when training, when watching my kids’ dance recital, when watching a movie, when competing in other races, when eating, when traveling on planes, when watching TV, and even when I wasn’t thinking about my first Ironman, I thought that I should be thinking about it. Everyday this race stole comfort time from my psyche. Can I swim 2.4 miles non-stop? Will my legs hold up for 112 miles of cycling with a mountain pass climb in a dry climate at altitude? If still moving forward after these two segments of the race, will my body and own two legs last the race’s third and final segment, a 26.2 mile run?
On bad thinking days my brain taunted me that the distance of an Ironman triathlon in a single day could be thought of in distance terms of swimming almost an entire lap of the Indianapolis 500 Motor Speedway, riding a bike across Florida from a Gulf of Mexico sandy beach in Naples to an Atlantic Ocean sandy beach in Fort Lauderdale, and running the across the Great Salt Lake. All seemingly impossible to do like running on water. My body barely survived half these distances in California when I was four years younger in August 1998. Will the same body that hurt for almost a week after doing independent marathons, without a swim and bike prerequisite, be able to survive with a bike and swim prelude that would filter out all but the strong as defined by a combination of mental, physical, and emotional characteristics? How much pain will this race place on a body and at how much of a personal cost with a benefit of what? A finisher’s medal, t-shirt, and eternal bragging rights of “Yea, I did that. See the checked off box on my Bucket List and the cool M Dot tattoo on my calf?”
A self-induced fear of the unknown took up more time than training. I reacted by pushing back with the need to be a complete triathlete and conquer the fear with the completion of a full Ironman distance triathlon race. Thus a battle of fear and pain began being waged against a trio of benefits: accomplishment, earning the status of Ironman, and enjoying a three month feeding frenzy during training.
A key to pre-race survival, my mantra: “I’m choosing to be a competitor instead of a spectator.” “I’m choosing to be a competitor instead of a spectator.” “I’m choosing to be a competitor instead of a spectator.” The goal did not get classified as a wish, a want, or I could have; no, I made a choice of this commitment: to compete in an Ironman triathlon.
Americans commitment to life and what living meant changed in September 2001. Watching the historic tragedy unfold in front of our eyes on the morning of the 11th our oldest daughter stood in front of the television pointing and simply asked, “Why?”
I stood beside her in silence, dumbfounded, and with no answer. Five days after the tragic events of 9-11 many triathletes were still in an emotional daze before the race started at the Thunderbird Triathlon held on the west side of Interstate 10, south of Phoenix. The pre-race buzz was notably subdued with more conversation about the tragic events that happened the previous Tuesday in New York City, Washington DC, and in western Pennsylvania than about the pending morning’s race. Everyone at the race on Sunday felt proud to be an American, appalled at being attacked, grateful to be alive, and blessed to be living in a free country. Many competitors struggled with the rightness of being at this race instead of recognizing a period of mourning for the people who lost their lives earlier in the week. While we showed up to race, the nature of the gathering was unusually somber and more of a social gathering of unity than determining who were best triathletes in Arizona that day.
Ironman races, at least the participation and individual completion of them, are simply a marketer’s example of giving people something they didn’t know they needed or knew they were missing. The Ironman marketers created global demand and added in hints of exclusivity and elitism. Participants’ did advertising for the Ironman marketers by sporting the M Dot branded logo on their skin in the form of tattoos. A self-awarded, eternal fading finishers’ badge of honor displayed on muscle toned, triathlete shaved legs, whether woman or man. Back on vacation along the coastline of San Diego, the birthplace of the triathlon sport, I was influenced to make a choice to become an Ironman. Upon returning home from the Pacific Ocean, I sat at the computer, pulled out my credit card, and keypunched in a commitment to triathlon training of all my spare time until the following June.
Running continued at a steady distance and pace through the Phoenix winter. ……. Somewhere in there I became sick. A nagging cold coupled with abdominal cramps, bloating, nausea and bouts of watery diarrhea. These feelings were much like what happened when returning to college every late August and already starting track practice after a summer of not training enough, beering too much, and working the right amount to charge up the savings account to cover tuition, room & board, and social spending. If you boost up the burning of calories without the corresponding replenishment of them, then the body’s defensives get weakened and sickness sets in. After a visit to my physician, the cold symptoms came and left, the other stuff did not. The cramps, bloating and more stayed on for three weeks, then four, on to five and entering a sixth week. I mapped out training runs to arrive at public restrooms to time them with calls from nature. These simply could not be handled by pushing a button on the cell phone to ignore. I needed a seat, toilet paper, and privacy.
I’m tired. I’m losing weight. My stomach hurts. I expel nasty farts. I’m dehydrated. And I’m spending as much time running in my flats as experiencing the runs on my ass on a toilet seat. This Ironman thing was going to be difficult and I’m not at the race site yet. My current mental visual was the water would be cold, the bike long, and the running course not equipped with enough porta-potties or worse, enough toilet paper.
Finally a doctor uncovered that I suffered from giardia, an infection caused by a microscopic parasite picked up when camping in November.
Outside of training racing provided a status check of where I was on the trail to Utah. In March, at my season opener race in Tucson, a fellow competitor and veteran Ironman asked about training progress and how I was holding up on the 50+ mile weekend bike rides. “Don’t know, riding at most 25 miles in a workout.”
He did a subtle shake of the head and gave a look of “dude, you’re going to hurt and you still not going to be an Ironman”. I read his face and felt inadequate. Back at the house the workout schedule showed I was on track, at least for a 13-Hour Ironman.
In mid-May 2002, on the run up to the Ironman Utah, I had the worst training day of my life. I ran year-round. The last break in running came in late fall 1988 when I broke the small toe on my right foot chasing our dog, Woody, around the four foot by six foot kitchen island. Woody was a mutt with an Australian Cattle Dog (Blue Healer) frame, a lot of smarts, and a bit of hound dog. He had beautiful merle markings with raccoon like ringed eyes like a heavy 360 degreed circle of black eye liner. We picked Woody out at an animal shelter line-up in Kansas City on Halloween morning two months after we married in 1987.
Woody loved to run. Once fully grown at 65 pounds, he was stocky and a strong runner. After we moved to Phoenix his interest and ability to run waned. He was slower due to age and the desert heat was never good for dogs. We enjoyed our workouts together but he aged quicker than his will. A month before the first planned Ironman, our whole family plus 10-12 neighborhood kids and parents played in the driveway waiting for the school bus to arrive. We were waiting until everyone left to drive Woody to the vet one final time. Word slipped out and the six year-old twins who lived across the street said loudly, “Woody was going to heaven”. The dad of the twins walked over and asked if we were putting him down. All I could do was look ahead and nod slightly for fear of losing my composure by crying. One-by-one the kids came over and gave the beautiful, proud, 14 ½ year old dog, a big hug on his last day on Earth. We should all leave this place with such a great send-off. My thoughts of Woody supplanted all thoughts of the upcoming race. I went to work and shut the door for the day. Didn’t feel like running. That was the worst day of my training.
My mood was confident with nervous anticipation of the pending unknown race outcome. Mentally I muttered my mantra of wanting to be a competitor instead of a spectator. I focused on the race components instead of the outcome of finishing or not finishing. The best thing to do to conquer fear is face it head on to eliminate it. I still needed to get these next two days to pass to get this Ironman thing resolved. To sum it up, I’m scared shitless. I looked at other entrants’ faces and postures and sensed different people’s confidence, anxiety and total fear. A few years later I read a brief write-up by Steven C. Hayes, a professor of psychology at University of Nevada-Reno, "Most people are struggling with difficult thoughts and feelings. But the show we put on for others says 'I've got it handled,'" The reality is "there's a big difference between what's on the outside and what's on the inside." Seems other racers in Provo were scared shitless too.
People learn at their first Ironman race the event stretches over at least four days for the athletes and more for the workers, volunteers, and exhibitors. Two days out from race day the experience of the athletes’ dinner event was impressive. Mike Reilly, the voice of Ironman and race announcer served as Master of Ceremonies for the banquet. Mike talked to the entire group as a centralized waiter ensuring are drinks were filled, plates loaded with hot food, and all dining needs were being met. He also did a great job in talking through the race logistics to set our expectations for the race: what to do when, when to be at the pre-race mandatory meeting, how to catch the buses to the race start, where the race started and where it finished. He was knowledgeable about the entire Ironman Utah race itinerary. He provided extra stuff too.
He mentioned key professional and age grouper triathletes scheduled to race. He shared personal stories of competitors’ courage in racing in Provo and overcame unique obstacles to get here too. He brought on stage the wife of one competitor who surprised her husband at dinner she too was racing on Saturday. She described her plan to surprise him in how she trained after: he went to work, he went to bed, and he went out training for himself. Oh yea, she was a mother of their kids too. Talk about motivation and commitment. He was too focused on his goal to notice. Her ability to hid things and his ability to be clueless, gave them something to work through after the race.
Mike Reilly also gave a sound bite to the entire audience during dinner, though he was keying in on me to set my mind at ease. During training rides over 30 miles and 10 mile or longer runs I carried workout food specifically created and packaged calories for triathletes: goo, gels, shots, bars, drinks, fruit, and more. I was not interested in carrying a triathlete’s pantry on race day only to get it drenched in sweat, covered with salt, and heated by my body before eating. Mike simply said, “The race is a catered affair.”
Always wondered how to carry enough food to get through the day but told the group you don’t need to carry it at all. The volunteers will provide you with what you need at the aid stations. This beat the heck out of the banana stuck in a Speedo swim suit in California, just needed to trust them not to run out of food or water, like California. His comment worked, my mind was at ease.
On day minus one before the race woke up, stretched, and went for a pre-race day jog of three miles. My planned loop back to the hotel room was blocked by a fence across a railroad track. Three planned miles of anti-anxiety running turned into a five mile anxiety creating, over-training workout. My legs felt tired. An excuse list of not being able to finish an Ironman triathlon was started.
I put my bike together Friday morning after breakfast. The bolt to the seat post sheared off. The seat sat unsecured on the bike frame six inches lower than needed. An intertube blew out when the tires were pumped up. I realized the air pump mounted on the bike frame doesn’t work on the Specialized three spooked fiberglass rear wheel. Excuse list grew in sync with the omen list. For the tire Wade showed off his CO2 cartridge with special adopter that can fill up a tire quickly. We headed off to the bike store for a new bolt, tubes, CO2 cartridges and the adopter. Tubes, tanks, and adopters were in stock. Bolts were not. A queasy stomach feeling creeped into my mid-section.
We headed off to the bike repair tent especially set-up for the race. The mechanic pulled out an Allen wrench, unscrewed the sheared off bolt, spun around and threw it into the trash bin some ten feet away without evening looking at it. My stomach dropped and queasiness was heightened because I had nothing to show another bike mechanic at another local bike store if needed. The on-site mechanic returned with a used bolt that …. Fits! At least I’ll make it to the starting line. We went to the hotel to dial in the seat height and stowaway the replacement tube, air cartridge, and adopter in the below the saddle storage bag. There was one more thing to share with Wade and add to our bikes.
I pulled out two sets of white labels with words to coach us through the race. On each label but one there was a single word: “Eat”, “Drink”, “Breathe”, “Relax”, “Laugh”, and on the other label it read: “Palm Trees Ahead”. We stuck the labels on each of our bike’s aero bars to serve as reminders for tomorrow’s race. The single words were all tactics to follow for a great race. “Palm Trees Ahead” was our motivational goal to be a Kona qualifier. I expected the race to be the most challenging sporting event in my life.
We headed out for lunch and out to rack our bikes in T-1 (transition #1) located four miles outside of town at Utah Lake State Park. The buoys were in place for the swim course. They were bright orange and anchored to the lake floor. The swim course was configured as one big rectangle. Never before did one mile look so far as when marked on open water. At Utah Lake and in my mind, the first challenge was to get mentally prepared to know I can and will swim 2.4 miles in open water. At least the weather was nice and the wind light. The lake’s surface was flat but my stomach churned.
I don’t sleep well the night before important races. Lying in bed thinking of tomorrow’s race with the feature show in my imagination was me with a steady swim, an efficient bike, followed by a fast run to finish and earn Ironman status. But during the commercial breaks I experienced atychiphobia, more commonly known as a fear of failure.
Many athletes never think anything bad will happen to them in a race. Bad things will only happen to others. At times we tend to think we are indestructible. For other athletes, they imagine and experience some competition phobias. Not stuff that will kill or maim us but would definitively prevent us from a well-earned performance we trained so hard, so smart, so diligently for in a race. Some people get so obsessed with potential bad outcomes they fail to accept the positives of being prepared for a race. They visualize catastrophes instead of successes. They go to extremes to think of disastrous outcomes, to the point of exaggerating potential worst outcomes in terms of all or nothing results instead of fulfilling accomplishments.
These negative thoughts include getting flat tires and not being able to fix them quickly, getting crashed into by others and taking us out of the race or other equipment malfunctions such as broken chains, bent derailleurs, or a sheared off pedal. In Provo, I feared most of not being able to finish an Ironman distance triathlon as my natural comfort zone was an 800 meter race in a track meet.
Digressing a bit, as a freshman in college I gave a speech about phobias using Lucy from the Peanuts comic strip as inspiration. Here’s what you may want to know: fear of water -- aquaphobia, of bikes -- cyclophobia, of running -- no word for "fear of running", however potamophobia is the fear of running water. No word for fear of competition but plenty of symptoms:
inability to sleep
losing control over emotions
fear of dying
incoherency in speaking
incoherency in thinking
As expected, didn’t sleep well Friday night. Didn’t suffer from fear of sleeping (somniphobia) or from the fear of not sleeping. No, suffered from (and this is just a bit of an understatement) anxiety, self-inflected and over-inflated.
At 4:30am I thought, “I’m choosing to be a competitor instead of a spectator today. I’m committed to this race. The day is for racing, all day. This is what I’m doing today.” Much better to be in the race instead of reading the results in my house 625 miles away.
We drove to a parking lot to catch a bus to the race start. We picked up another competitor walking towards the buses a few blocks away. Paying forward and thinking ahead someone would return the gesture at a future race. Upon arrival we parked the car and the three of us parted in our own separate ways similar to how the swimmers would be doing in two hours.
My T2 bag was filled with biking shoes, shorts, a jersey, helmet, sunglasses, peanut butter and cheese crackers, and enough gels to feed me beyond the special needs bag re-fill zone in case I missed every single hand off from the race volunteers.
On the bus I wondered if I was going to return as an Ironman at the end of day. With peers to here and here with fear, my stomach was queasy. While this was not war, I made it my own battle and related this must be how soldiers felt before going into battle: the uncertainty of achieving the day’s objective, the uncertainty of returning intact or maimed, or even alive. To cope, I remembered a passage in The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe where he wrote about original Mercury astronaut Gus Grissom when flying combat missions in North Korean. When stationed in South Korea pilots who had not been shot at by North Korean’s had to stand on the bus between the barracks and their fighter jets. Gus made sure he earned the right to sit on the bus for the next trip. The “main thing was not to be left behind.” I chose to earn the right to be called an Ironman by keeping focused on being a competitor instead of a spectator. While I didn’t have to stand, I didn’t want to be left behind the peer group I chose to belong to pending a bona fide qualification.
We arrived at the state park. What a difference a day makes. The lake’s calmness from the Friday was replaced with 2-3 foot waves slamming onto the rocks used to build up and protect the jetty that stretched out into Lake Utah. A howling wind, sometimes up to 40 miles per hour came across the water pushing white caps over a continuous churn of lake water. Above a helicopter hovered adding to the cacophony of sounds. The combination of loud noises, the stinging feel of sand picked up by the wind blasting on any exposed skin, and the sight of fear on so many athletes’ faces, combined to boost my anxiety level. Then, chaos took over all triathletes but the bravest and the clueless.
Scheduled race start time was 7am. At 6:45am earlier adopters followed the officials’ directions to enter the water and get into position for an on-time start. Other racers, including me, waited as long as possible to avoid the water churn that would burn up precious energy required deep into the race. To avoid the congestion I slipped off the main line of competitors walking out on the pier and followed competitors who stepped directly into the water from the rocks on the right side of the pier. I passed a competitor who was struggling with an uncooperative zipper on his wetsuit. He was not happy. He was stressed. He was yelling spitefully loud to his wife/girlfriend to fix the zipper that was not meshing together. He was so loud anyone nearby could hear him over all the sounds of nature that surrounded the lake. No matter what she tried the zipper’s teeth would not mesh together. I still wonder if the couple is meshing today.
Even though scared of getting tossed around in the water, I was a lemming and followed everyone else wearing a wetsuit into the lake to swim, at least try to swim. In college, a track teammate said he did something he should not have done during a high school track practice and his coached called him out on it. He asked Mark why he did his ill-decision deed. Mark said because his friends were doing it. His coached lectured him about the evils of peer pressure and asked Mark if he would jump off a cliff if his friends were doing it too which Mark replied, “Yeah, if I thought it would make me a better runner.” How does a coach respond other than telling his star athlete he is also a smartass? Back in Provo, I jumped off the cliff, or into the water with my peer group triathletes because I thought it would make me Ironman.
The starting cannon sounded at 6:55am to signal the official race start though the noise was muffled and sounded more like a rock being turned over and dropped by a raging whitewater river instead of a commanding boom. Many competitors never heard the cannon because they jumped the gun. Either a group of swimmers already in water started the race on their own or competitors entering the water and bobbing and stroking out towards an undefined starting line caused a critical mass reaction that resulted in the race start. The cannon fired before the planned start time of 7am and chaos ensued across the rough surface of Lake Utah for almost 1,550 triathletes.
Once in the water my lemming peer group was gone. Three of us would swim up the wall of a wave and when the wall washed out the other two competitors were carried in different directions away from me. I was belly slammed down in the flattening water and further dropped into a new trough of the next wave that came rolling towards me. I would stroke and feel the upper half of my body pulled up into the oncoming wave. Think of Garfield the Cat with arms and legs spread out and being plastered to the wall of water on a big wave only to slide off and be pounded again and again by subsequent waves. That’s what it felt like to swim in Lake Utah on race morning. To avoid that feel of being temporary stuck on the wall of the wave, I dove into a wave and kicked like crazy yet this made no difference as the body was slammed again. I worried my legs would get tired on the swim before reaching the bike or run course. On each wave there would be new people swimming beside me going up on the crest and not there when coming down. Did they get pinned underwater, pushed forward on the front side or just tossed around? All of the above based on claims from competitors after the race.
The churning water tossed swimmers continuously in different directions all at once. No tradition “V” shape of swimmers formed. No one knew how to follow other swimmers or swim towards directional markers or turnaround buoys. The buoys were either blown away by winds or blocked by towering waves. None were spotted when looking in any direction. No life guards, race officials or volunteers on surfboards, in kayaks, or on-board any boats that usually are present to herd wayward swimmers back on course were within eyesight. Though after the swim leg some competitors said they saw both and took instructions when given. I could not see anyone or anything multiple times during the swim when getting bogged down in the trough of waves up to five feet high according to post race police reports. The sighting was not much better at the crest of the waves seeing only other wave tops or partial body parts. Sometimes a swimmer’s head, arms, and the top portion of their torso stuck out of the wave, almost like the person was body surfing. At other times only legs stuck out of the water. No one seemed to be swimming in a prone position and headed in a straight direction to the turn buoys. I continued swimming in the direction of where a buoy was in my mental map of the course and somewhat following any common directions that could be interpreted by looking at the other competitors. I swam for over 40 minutes until someone in a boat pointed with her whole arm and hand to turnaround. I accepted her direction that we reached the turnaround point. Not too far-fetched. At a triathlon in Lake Pleasant, 33 miles north of Phoenix, where winds kicked up after the race started and blew the first left hand turn buoy into deeper water where it floated and continued stretching the course further out. At Lake Pleasant triathletes in the later wave starts, and the slower swimmers, had more distance to cover to reach the first turn. The Lake Utah winds and water though were much worse than in Phoenix eight years earlier.
After the turn-around the water seemed much smoother when swimming back offering more of gentle rolling motion than the previous churning. I finally swam relaxed with a steady breathing pattern of every right arm recovery and sighted forward every tenth stroke. Joined by three other swimmers we settled into a smooth rhythm of stroke and glide alongside the others. Within our small pod, I felt safe. We swam towards the transition. We spotted land to the left and followed other swimmers around the jetty. I spotted after the turn and up on the jetty to the left were former swimmers now crawling, climbing, or sitting on the rocks. Others walked slowly almost shuffling their feet towards the transition area. Shocked none of the racers were running through the transition, I did a couple of breast stokes for confirmation. Some racers looked like zombies as they walked on shore. This was not what I expected during an Ironman but maybe this is how people transitioned after such a long swim and at least another 7 to 16 hours of racing to go.
I was also discouraged by how many swimmers out swam me on the course. I was further behind on the first leg than imagined and a new anxiety moved in replacing the calm that settled in after the swim turnaround. I re-grouped and thought this was an all-day race and at least half of the quick starters would be coming back to me as the bike and run progressed. I continued swimming until touching the lake bottom and stood up. Almost everyone informed racers stepping out of the water the swim leg was cancelled.
The race was on hold. Once on dry ground I looked down at the watch. I had been swimming for an hour and ten minutes in heavy “seas” without standing or holding on to anything. This was a confidence builder in knowing I could handle the Ironman swim leg but more useful for the future. For today’s race, we were faced with “Now what?”
We were instructed to cross the timing mat located 200 hundred meters away at the marked entrance to the transition area out of Lake Utah to ensure all participants were accounted for who entered the lake. This was the first indication a few hundred of us were pushed by the current 400 meters past the planned exit point. Race officials were meticulously accounting for the competitors. Next, word spread quickly at least one competitor drowned after the lake was cleared of swimmers and everyone’s safety status determined. Competitors were instructed to pick up their T1 swim to bike transition bags and hang out in the transition area for updates.
Two things were certain: relieved to be out of the lake and back on dry land and fortunate to be alive as did everyone else we talked with or overheard talking with others. The realty someone died during the race gave me the chills. The cool temperatures, windy conditions, and being damp also impaired our comfort factored.
Athletes kept walking up with somber looks to claim their T1 bag. Two and half hours after the race started less than a hand full of unclaimed transition bags remained scattered between the swim exit and bikes. Everyone waited. We wanted their owners to claim all remaining bags. After hearing at least one person drowned, the bags were a worrisome sight others incurred the same fate. A common buzz was three people drowned, the same number of bags remaining on the ground to be claimed by their owners.
Race officials announced the race would start back up at 10am with a bike and run at half-ironman distances. The re-start for Utah Ironman was a time trial format with racers leaving at three second intervals for the amateurs. Only 101 triathletes chose not to return to the starting line.
Competitors snaked around the transition area with bike in hand taking a few steps forward every three seconds as one by one each of us started racing again. The length of the snake line held steady with racers pedaling out the front and an equal amount walked up to be part of the new tail. Step by step over 1,400 participants continued the race and worked their way to the head of the line. As each of us approached the starting point a race official gave us some additional guidance. Another official sincerely asked us how we were doing and shared a funny comment in an attempt to take another edge off the stress of the morning. Don’t remember what he said but I laughed. I started the watch, took a final few steps across the timing mats and mounted the bike as my individual time clock started.
Spectators from the Provo area, families, friends and race support lined the course for the first couple of miles from the park through downtown. Adrenalin was pumping due to nerves and the positive excitement generated from the cheering, clapping, and whistling crowd we rode by. The spectators quickly thinned out as we left town. I settled into smooth pedaling and focused on getting into a much needed non-adrenalin race mode to cover the announced 65 miles of cycling between Lake Utah State Park and T2 on the campus of Brigham Young University. We biked the lower portion of the original race course. A relatively flat portion to the south of Provo except on the way to town we had a five mile long climb with the wind in our face for the final push to T2. Race officials eliminated the upper portion of the original 112 mile bike course including a steep climb out of town to the north.
With the age stratified re-start, I passed other cyclists which built confidence. Halfway through the ride, just beyond the Special Needs exchange area, I implemented a handlebar coaching tip, “Eat”. I reached into one of three pockets on the back of the bright red bike jersey and pulled out a favorite training snack of peanut butter and cheese flavored crackers. These tasted so good when at rest on South Mountain Park in Phoenix after climbing some 1,000+ feet and earning the salty, sweet, creamy, and crunchy treat. Now riding at 20+ miles per hour I bit into the first cracker which exploded into a gagging dust cloud forced to the back of my throat turbo charged by the wind. My body turned on me. I coughed violently to the point of almost losing control of the bike. I almost suffocated from a blocked windpipe. This was an example of why never to try anything new in a race you had not practiced beforehand. I quickly used up my remaining handlebar coaching tips of “Drink”, “Breathe”, and “Relax” as I washed out the remaining crumbs with some water while catching my breath and getting relaxed again.
An old folklore belief is bad things come in three’s. First, the long swim warm-up scared the bejesus out of me. Next, came the cracker blast that scared the bejesus out of me. Five miles down the road my rear tire blew with a loud “pop” scaring the bejesus out of me.
I rolled to a stop and as practiced, repaired a flat tire. Opened the quick release level and pulled off the wheel. Slipped off the tire, stripped out the intertube, ringed a finger on the inside of the tire to feel for anything sharp (there was none), slotted in the replacement tube, tucked in the bead of the tire, placed the tire inflator adapter onto the valve, twisted on a CO2 cartridge, and looked in disbelief the wheel was filled with air and ready for more racing. I did a quick set of leg stretches. Locked the wheel in place, stashed the holey tube in a shirt pocket, and pedaled off towards the transition on the BYU campus.
Within a mile of where the flat tire occurred we rode through an aid station. Near the end of the exchange zone someone set up a modified basketball backboard and goal post to a trash bin to serve as a target to be aimed at for depleted water bottles. Instead, I pulled out the intertube and spent CO2 cartridge, and tossed them. Went two-for-two which provided some humor for a once Hoosier wannabe basketball player turned runner turned triathlete. With my head back into the race I passed people who leaped frogged over me when fixing the flat tire.
As a competitive athlete, I displayed traits of mental toughness throughout the race. One was flexibility; kept moving forward even as the race did not go as planned such as the rough swim, the flat tire, or forced fed peanut butter cheese crackers. I maintained a sense of humor and thought through barriers quickly, responded with solutions, and kept moving towards the day’s objective. Even if the day’s goal changed, like today, from being an Ironman to getting across the finish line in the shortest amount of time, we adopted. The best competitive athletes adapted as needed at all races.
My two favorite parts of the bike leg were the volunteers and an on course resident giving us inspiration. The volunteers were great with their energy levels, ability to deliver calories to moving targets, and encouragement to keep us competitors going. Consider most volunteers on the bike course were put on hold just like the triathletes. Their understanding of what came down in Lake Utah on race morning had to be less than what ours was which in reality was minimal. Yet the volunteers were on the course when we needed them. Each of the volunteers treated us like their most important customer of their morning and early afternoon. In a continual process volunteers received drink and food orders. Each order fulfilled within seconds to a cycling customer that made drive-thru at a fast food joint seem like an overnight stay compared to triathletes pedaling thru aid stations. The volunteers lifted drink after drink from the tables and ice buckets. Next, they stretched their arms out to the competitors to make a split second connection of holding on with just enough force to not drop the bottle and let the cyclist grab it and pull it from their hand. Other volunteers received orders for food and did a similar rotation from competitor to food table, reaching for food via shouts from triathletes, and rotating to pass out to the rolling patrons. Each server handling multiple food orders, one after another after another: gels, bananas, and nutritional bars. This put a whole new meaning to the “Grab N Go” marketing concept of convenient foods. Mike Reilly was spot on for telling us the race was a catered affair. None of the volunteers were doing this service for any type of anticipated financial tips yet they were the best waiters and waitresses of the race. And for that, I was blissfully grateful.
The other favorite was a resident right on the bike course. She was maybe in her 60’s, could be 70’s. She cheered us on in front of her house near midpoint of bike leg. Her words were what you expect from an experienced cyclist on a grand tour. “Around the turn you get a tail wind. You can pick up your cadence and speed back to town.” She knew the head winds were wearing out a fair amount of racers passing in front of her home. The same winds that churned up the lake pushed us around in the open landscape on the bike. Her encouragement was welcomed by all the bikers in what I could hear from them. I chimed in with many other racers who thanked her for the comments.
With the longer race distance at a slightly slower pace than other triathlons previously competed in, I found myself talking to and acknowledging more than one hundred people during the race. This included competitors, spectators, officials, sponsors, competitors’ friends and family, my friends, training partners, car passengers, police officers, and all volunteers I made eye contact with along the course and in the finishing chute. This was surprising and a welcoming aspect to long distance racing I experienced for the first time. The race bonding was a pleasant and a memorable experience.
The coolest thing happened on the bike leg, a volunteer took the bike from me just past the dismount line. Never experienced that before in 70+ triathlons. I didn’t need to find the rack that matched the race number on the bike. I was freed up to run and grab my bike-to-run transition bag and cover the remaining 13.1 miles on foot.
The most non-cool thing came during the first step off the bike as the shear feel of hellfire pain shot through the quads, hamstrings, and lower back when attempting to run after pumping and spinning for 71 miles. With a strong infusion of sarcasm here, the legs would have functioned as designed if we only covered 65 miles as informed at the race re-start. I shuffled along to grab the transition bag. I stumbled into the change tent and sat down to swap-out cycling shorts and a jersey for running shorts and a tank top. I also treated myself to new socks and a running hat. Standing up from the bench, the legs started to feel ready to run.
We covered interesting geography running in this town of over 100,000 people plus college students. We ran south out of the changing tent into the transition area, did a 180 degree turn and saw a wonderful background of snow on top of the Wasatch Mountains. Next, we strode out on closed streets along the athletic fields. Beyond the university grounds the course turned, well, different. We went through BYU’s stables; complete with at least a trio of horse, cow, and sheep shit smells on an unpleasantly hot day. We were routed on the back side of a strip mall complete with dumpsters and big hole in a fence we ran through! This was not the type of breakout race any of us were expecting. The only thing missing were people in black and white strips with wire cutters being chased by police with whistles.
We continued north four miles to the turnaround point and re-traced our steps south and further into new territory beyond the athletic complexes. Finally another turnaround and the course headed north again towards the finish line. We gained some slight elevation up through what looked like student housing rentals. From there the track stadium came into view. We entered the complex’s south gate and ran our final 300 meters on the Cougars’ running track. I became a track runner again and took off with all I had left, at least the run felt like a full out sprint with long strides and quick turnover. I picked up the pace not so much to pass as many competitors as possible but because it felt like the right thing to do since that’s what four years of college track conditioned me to do.
I crossed the finishing line in full stride and heard my name being announced as finishing, and as fully expecting, not the words of Mike Reilly announcing me, or any of the other finishers as Ironman. I was disappointed but knew we did not earn Ironman status. Everyone did receive a finishers’ shirt and medal with the words written on there but reading them were perceived as an extension of our confusing day with some painful teasing piled on at the end of the day. I gained confidence from the achievement earned at the race. I finished. I didn’t feel the fulfillment of the original goal but everyone who finished accomplished some of their goals. We didn’t cover the Ironman distance but we did all the training. We did the mental preparation. We swam, we biked, we ran, we competed, and we crossed the finish line. This gave me the confidence needed for another attempt. No one could take that from us.
With all of the effort and the accomplishments, still wasn’t an Ironman. That would have to wait for another state and another choice of the same commitment. At the next Ironman triathlon I’ll choose again to earn the full credentials of Ironman status but in Utah, only earned the GED. Next time I’ll earn the diploma.
The confusion from race day became clearer on Sunday morning when reading the paper. We learned John Boland, a 55 year old seasoned triathlete from California, was pulled from Lake Utah 20 minutes after the race started, given resuscitation on a rescue boat, and later pronounced dead. Initial cause was identified as drowning. More information came from others also. Two of the unclaimed bags lingering in T1 belonged to racers who dropped off their bags and decided the lake was too dangerous for them and returned to their hotel rooms for some addition rest and much needed relaxation before the race started. The swim leg had been cancelled by 7:15am or less than 20 minutes from the default start time. Officials and swim spotters started clearing the lake pulling out athletes into boats, putting life preservers on some, and sending stronger swimmers back to the starting point. Others, like me, never received the message while in the lake.
Wade and I drove out to Lake Utah State Park for easy run on Sunday morning. The lake was flat, the wind was minimal, and sun shone brightly. What a difference a day makes. We returned to the hotel, showered, and went to check on the official finishing results. I finished 9th in the 40-44 age group, 104th overall. Wade, three years younger and in the same age bracket, finished 13th in age group and 111th overall just 15 seconds behind me, less than 1/10th of one percent behind in a race that lasted a few ticks under five hours for both of us. Eight qualifying spots were established for our age-group to the Ironman World Championships otherwise referred to Hawaii Ironman, IM Hawaii, Hawaii, Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon, “Worlds”, or simply “Kona”. Wade told me, “Never turn down a qualifying spot to Kona”.
In the sport of triathloning a roll-down is similar to succession planning in the business world. For triathlon governing bodies the roll-down process ensures an adequate number of high caliber triathletes get represented in either a race or representing their country at a world championship competition. For a business person getting advancement from a succession plan is the difference between a stock options or the standard bonus, the corner office with a two sided view or one with simply a window view, or coveted c-level title or a more common VP, director, or manager tag. For triathletes, the roll-down is the difference between earning another finisher’s medal on the world scene or staying home to train much smarter for next year’s race. Also for the triathletes, roll-downs are pressure filled decision opportunities in gaining a notch up on the career ladder of a world championship (executive ranks) or time to enter a different race and try again (switch employors or careers). Furthermore, when a triathlete earns the right to move above the cut-off line and proclaim things like: World’s team member, world class age-grouper, or the heap of the elite: Kona Qualifier (KQ) or better, a Kona Finisher.
Wade and I checked the sign-up list for Hawaii. The triathletes who finished 2nd through 8th in the 40-44 age group had all signed up for Hawaii. The age-group winner had until 11am to claim his spot. At noon the roll-down process started with unclaimed qualifying spots being doled out to the next in line by age-group and gender. All roll-down hopefuls, and the race officials doling out the now unclaimed spots, filled a highly anxiety charged hotel conference room. My name come up first to fill out the male 40-44 age-group line-up for Kona. After being aware of Ironman Hawaii for 20 years and committing the last eight months of spare time training for the race, I qualified by 1 second.
I ran in my sweet spot on the BYU track while running at full stride for the final 300 meters of a long race day. Without the finishing kick, there would have been no Kona. I gained confidence of an achievement to finish the race goal but not fulfillment on earning Ironman status. A second chance fulfillment opportunity came in earning a Kona spot to compete and finish that race to earn the label “Ironman”.
I flew out Sunday evening. On the flight to Phoenix I mentally reviewed the race from the day before. None of us had an instruction manual in how to race, well not that we took with us on the race. Competitors just figured out how to address the challenges during the swim like how to combat the waves, adjust to the weird start, compromise for the missing buoys, and compensate for the lack of understandable communication on the water. On the bike we adjusted to the time trial start, battled the winds, fixed the flats, and fueled the body. During the run we worked through the bike to run pains, iced the heat, and overcame the disappointment of not being Ironmans. Wade and I did carry an instruction manual of sorts on our handle bars. I used them all:
Palm Trees Ahead
This coaching served me well in Utah. The choice to try to become an Ironman and the commitment to train for the title did too. The handlebar coaching continued way after Ironman Utah. I kept them on the aero bars of my race bike into 2010 when the bolt and connections finally were stripped but the wisdom remains timeless and priceless.
Upon my return home, my oldest daughter Hayes commented to others multiple times about “Dad’s friend” who died during the swim. For us in Provo we learned even with lifeguards, life was not guaranteed. Triathlons and many other endeavors are risky propositions. Before going to future races, Hayes always asked if enough lifeguards would be in the water for the swim leg. Her concerns were well learned from knowing not to swim in our pool or a lake, river, or ocean without a lifeguard.
While I did not personally know John Boland, Hayes was smart enough to make the connection for me. Within triathloning, a brotherhood and sisterhood of sorts exists among all triathletes whether we know each other or not. We are bonded in a common sport and we lost someone from the family at Ironman Utah. With reflection on Mr. Boland, we departed Provo giving him a figurative hug goodbye on his final leg to heaven.