Ironman Arizona

Mike Reilly is “the voice of Ironman”. Since I became involved in the sport, I’ve heard and read about people whose goal is to hear Reilly say their name followed by the words “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN”. I indulged in the fantasy in the months leading up to the race and part of my visualization process was hearing his voice say my name as I crossed the finish. The thing is, it didn’t happen.

Thursday

Brian and I drove from LA to Tempe on Thursday, another six hour Statler and Waldorf session of bad jokes, talking about relationships, and several In N’ Out Burger stops to pour dumptrucks of calories into my system. I had already begun my carbohydrate load earlier in the week knowing that it takes days for my body to absorb carbohydrates into usable fuel for race day. What had been difficult was switching from a baseline diet high in vegetables, lean protein, and almost zero breads and starches, to one favoring protein and starches. I felt full all the time and simply worked to keep eating. Each morning’s bowl of oatmeal, whey protein, applesauce, and almond butter became a chore to complete, and two hours later it was time to eat again. Learning to eat by task and not by feeling is a critical Ironman lesson that would come back on race day.

The 202 loop goes past Tempe Town Lake where the Ironman swim would take place and the buoys were already afloat in the water. I got very excited just seeing the location and said as much. Brian said that was the excitement he was looking for from me a month ago at Soma, and it just occurred to him how very sick I was that weekend. I never want to race fighting off a migraine ever again. Though I am glad I did the Soma half because it was perfect prep for Ironman Arizona.

We got into Tempe around 6 and got checked into our condo rental. Sofia found the place online, a condominium with rental units. These usually go to vacationers, ASU students, and student’s visiting parents. The woman who showed us around said that they do a huge business in baseball training season because the weather is good all year, then the players leave and they are flooded with triathletes for the race. We walked into the apartment and it was perfect: 900 square feet with two bedrooms on opposite sides. A huge kitchen with lots of space for all my traveling food stuff and flatscreen TVs in the rooms.

It was too late to go out and do any workouts so Brian and I went to Oregano’s Pizza, his favorite spot in Tempe. I was looking forward to actually enjoying the food this time, as a month prior was a total mess. We ordered the biggest pesto and sausage pizza on the menu. Afterwards we went back to the condo, watched a movie, and went to bed like two old men.

Friday

Friday morning we went out to Tempe Town Lake and did a twenty-minute practice swim, just getting the feel of the water temperature and briefly moving briskly. It was good to exercise again after days of eating and not working out much. That week the pain in my right leg had subsided to a dull presence, made easier once I started moving. Strangely, walking seemed to aggravate it while cycling and swimming made it feel better. In the days prior I would take the dogs for their walk and do a few quick jogs that felt fine and were encouraging. There is a world of difference between jogging a block with dogs and running a marathon so I just tabled the thought and figured I would do whatever I could do on race day. Worrying about it wasn’t going to make it heal faster.

That morning I was feeling great. I could see that the transition area layout was almost identical to Soma but made larger and expanded for the size of the event and the logistics of wrangling 2500 people through to their bags. At Soma we entered in age group waves descending metal steps into the water and swimming a few dozen yards to the start line. For Ironman Arizona those stairs are in place but they are only for the swim out – all 2500 competitors enter the water further east near a boat dock, and then everyone goes off at the same time for the mass start. The lake is big, but it still resembles a river more than a lake and when segmented in half for an out and back course it creates a narrower channel. Getting in a few practice swims was helpful to visualize what I would do and where I would seed myself for the race. After the practice swim and saying hello to some LA Tri Club people doing the race Brian and I went to the expo itself and walked around, looked at swag, and then found the check-in tent. The line stretched a quarter mile, easily a two-hour wait. We decided we were hungry and since we had to get Sofia at the airport at 3 it was easy just to go eat lunch and come back after the airport.

We picked up Sofia and went back into downtown Tempe to get me registered. First we grabbed some food at a sub shop and then made our way to the expo. On the way in I said hello for a few minutes to an LA Tri Club friend and finally I made it to the registration desk. It was 4:01pm. Registration closed at 4. The USAT official turned his back, said “we’re done” and to come back between 9 and 11 the next day. At the time, this seemed perfectly normal. But it began to dawn on me that I may have just screwed something up badly. We got back to the condo and Sofia started unpacking. I looked at the PDF race guide, which said in boldface caps, “ALL RACE PACKETS MUST BE PICKED UP BY 4PM ON FRIDAY NOVEMBER, 20.” A cold sweat broke out on my neck. My heart started pounding. I scanned the athlete guide and found an emergency phone number. The woman said that yes, I could pick up my packet Saturday morning from 9 to 11am, they don’t publicize it but know that some people have travel problems. But even though I had two separate people tell me I could register the next morning I was horrified. I felt sick. I felt like I had made a huge mistake in relaxing and enjoying the time so much that I blew everything before I even made it to the race start. I would have trained for a year only to fail because of absent-mindedness.

Sofia and Brian calmed me down as much as they could and we went out for dinner – Oregano’s Pizza again. Of course, this time we were surrounded by Ironman racers wearing the blue wristband; proof they had registered. I tried as hard as I could to relax and trust that I would be fine, but it didn’t make the sick feeling go away. I like to be organized; I pride myself in being punctual when it really matters. I don’t like to forget important details, and yet – I damn near did.

I did not sleep well. Partly because the bed in the condo was awful – a pillow top mattress that created a slight dome effect combined with scratchy cotton sheets and a synthetic, slippery blanket. Thursday night’s sleep was manageable but Friday’s sleep was horrendous. The stress and worry combined with two days of cheese dinner was double ungood. I was up early, groggy, but we got our act together quickly and went out to the expo.

Saturday

Brian’s friends Anthony, Kim, and a friend of Anthony’s were already at the lake and we talked with them while getting suited up. Kim had flown into town with 2008 Ironman World Champion Chris McCormack on a private jet owned by a wealthy age group triathlete. Anthony had just raced The World Championships 70.3 race in Florida a week prior turning in a blistering fast 4:14 finish (in contrast, the fastest ½ Ironman I had done to date was 5:27). He was in Tempe with family and just figured he’d sweet-talk his way into this race. Not only did he manage to talk his way into a race entry, he paid half the normal registration fee. Anthony is a gifted natural athlete and a charming person so people want to do things with him and for him. TNS Training is made up of a lot of people who weren’t cool in school, who had to work brutally hard to force open doors. I’m certain Anthony works his butt off for what he has – a successful business, a big family, and an enviable talent in the sport – but he does stand in contrast to those of us who watched The Breakfast Club and saw ourselves. Anthony wants to coach, and I have no doubt he would be an exceptional one because he has tremendous success and experience to draw upon. And yet, he wouldn’t necessarily be the best coach for me because I’m not a natural, gifted athlete. I can’t just throw Crustables into my bike box and do an Ironman with that as my food source because my body will shut down. I’m a workhorse. I want my coach to be familiar with what that’s like.

We got suited up and I took off for my swim. I did fifteen minutes of freestyle, and then practiced exiting the water on the metal ramp. The first step is about neck level and if you’re not careful you can smash your foot against the rocks as you scramble for a step. So went in and out four times just to be sure how I would exit the next day. I got out of the water, changed into my running shoes, and Brian and I took off for a short run.

He took me a mile out in reverse direction from the finish line, just to the Rio Salado bridge. We did a few 30-second speed pickups just to keep the legs fresh. Once we reached the bridge Brian pointed to the ground and said, “this spot is 1.25 miles from the finish. On your third lap tomorrow I want you to start running here and gradually increase your speed all the way to the end.” We turned around and started jogging back, easy, and I mentally took notes of the terrain in prep for the race. I ran the last quarter mile with a friend of Anthony’s, making small talk, both of us excited for the race the next day and fretting our various bubbameinzta. I finished, grabbed my stuff, ate, and damn well ran to the registration tent.

It took all of ten minutes to get registered and have the blue band put on my wrist. But once that was done, I’m not kidding; I could feel my entire bowel relax. Later, Brian would tell me that while he and Anthony were running that morning Anthony said in disbelief as he watched my gait, “he ran a 1:35 half marathon like THAT?” Perhaps what they did not know is my clunky, compressed style was made worse by being a solid wall of tension. I took a photo of my wristband and posted it to my Facebook wall just to show that I had at least got myself checked into the race. Finally.

We ate lunch and then went back to the condo where I laid out all the plastic bags necessary for an Ironman. Because I had registered late I was thinking I would bring all my stuff with me to the expo and do my bag setup in the grass. DUMB. Very glad I listened to Sofia and Brian and brought it back to the condo for prep. I laid all five bags out on the floor and piled all the things I needed onto each bag.

Morning clothes bag: swim shorts, TNS tri jersey, goggles, earplugs, swim cap, trislide spray lube, Powerbar gel, race timing chip, sweatpants, TNS jacket.
Bike gear bag: bike shoes, race belt, socks, head cap, chamois cream, Garmin GPS, bike shorts, personal towel.
Bike special needs bag: 4 Powerbar gels, spare tube & CO2 cartridge, 3 Camlebak podium bottles with Infinit powder, 4 bottles of water.
Run gear bag: running shoes, socks, hat, sunglasses, TNS shorts.
Run special needs bag: 2 Powerbar gels, chamois cream, arm warmers, clean socks.

I got everything packed; we loaded up the bike and gear bags and went back to the expo for drop-off. Drop-off was pretty easy – racking the bike was quick and volunteers helped lay the gear bags by number in two grassy areas. I made mental notes where everything was and felt strangely calm. I was onboard a train moving progressively forward. I suppose this is how you lead people to their death – create an atmosphere of structure and order with chutes and paths for them to follow and we’ll go patiently along. I suppose Temple Grandin has figured this out. There’s a lot of similarity between cattle being herded to slaughter and a few thousand jittery triathletes full of anticipation for a huge race. Show us a chute with gentle turns and we’ll move through calmly and quickly towards the stun gun. While I finished with the logistics, Sofia and Brian decorated motivational signs for the race.

Sofia and I went through the expo one more time looking at all the Ironman (aka “M-dot”) swag. I had already purchased a t-shirt and a running visor, and though I am not superstitious I felt it was presumptuous to buy M-dot branded apparel without having actually finished the race.

Back to the condo and Brian and I went down for naps while Sofia got down to crafty business before the onslaught of friends and family coming into town. Sofia is a quiet introvert by nature, and Brian had recently taken the Myers-Briggs and was surprised to discover that he, too, is an introvert. I’m an ENTJ, known as the Field Marshall Rational, and though I am by nature extroverted I burn out and need to recharge with quiet alone time. Dinner was set early – 5pm – so I we could be home and in bed before 9.

My parents, Sofia’s parents, her brother and nephew, friends of my parents and their son (who is now doing triathlons), his girlfriend, Charrissa, Dave, Eve, and Damon all came for the pre-race dinner. At first it was like herding cats, and I liked seeing how my triathlete friends differed from my family and their friends. Family wanted to circle and talk, hug and chitchat. Triathletes got their hug hello and then found their chairs. Efficient. Hungry. Family wants to talk about the menu and options. Triathletes are goal-oriented and have visualized the whole event beforehand. They know they’re going to want a glass of wine (or more if they’re not racing), maybe an appetizer, and in Chinese food you always order Nx1.25 dishes where N=the number of people seated.

Brian stood and gave a toast, telling everyone that he was the first person to call me an “advanced” triathlete over a year before, but more importantly knowing that I could do an Ironman because I had what mattered most – heart. Huge legs, sure, but heart counted most. He then read the following quote, the same one his father read to him and which affected him deeply:

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”“Citizenship in a Republic,”
Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910

Then he and Sofia presented me with a present, something they had conspired together to create in the months prior. A book, “IronMax: The Road to IMAZ 2009”. It is a book documenting my journey in photos and words, with messages from my dearest friends and family. I had no idea they had been doing this and no one leaked the secret. It’s an incredible piece of work and I was already pretty choked up.

I stood and I said I don’t express my emotions publicly that much. I hedge my bets because when I don’t know the outcome of something I always assume the worst will happen and work my up from there. After something goes well I allow myself to experience joy but not beforehand. Triathlon training is a solo endeavor – long miles alone turning over arms, pedals, or feet. But being supported by my amazing friends and family has made it so it’s a shared experience. When training with friends we’re doing it together. With family, they see the growth on a longer timeline. Sofia has been the most incredibly supportive partner anyone could ever hope for. Always supportive, never critical, patient, and present. I’ve worked really hard to try and find the joy in the journey and in that moment, standing there surrounded by friends, knowing I had friends further away who were equally invested in me, was pure joy and I was grateful to be able to experience it fully in that moment.

At least, that is what I hope I said. I was a bit of a mess. I thanked Brian for his friendship and coaching and presented him with a gift, but the exceptional book he and Sofia had prepared dwarfed all.

Later, Sofia handed me a slip of paper that was the toast she had prepared but there wasn’t a good time to interrupt or follow what had already been said.

Two thoughts for you as you embark on tomorrow.

“The glory of sport comes from dedication, determination and desire. Achieving success and personal glory in athletics has less to do with wins and losses than it does with learning how to prepare yourself so that at the end of the day, whether on the track or in the office, you know that there was nothing more you could have done to reach your ultimate goal.” -Jackie Joyner-Kersee

“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.” -T. E. Lawrence, “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”

To Max, the most dangerous daytime dreamer I know, you made this weekend possible, and there was nothing more you could have done to prepare for this moment.

I cannot say enough how fortunate and grateful I am for Sofia. In the past year she has never, ever said a single critical word. She’s been relentlessly supportive of everything I’ve done, and planned and organized events to either make it happen or celebrate the occasion. We joke that our independent pursuits dovetail well, that I leave the house for hours leaving her alone to do homework quietly with the dogs. But in many relationships that would be a point of resentment. Being in this sport for a few years, I have seen how the choice to do an Ironman strains relationships – sometimes to the point of destruction. The road to many Ironmans is littered with marriages, lost parents, and narcissism run amok. She consistently helps me see the positives and milestones along the way and refuses to let me devalue anything, especially myself. We are made better by one another, able to reach and achieve more than we thought possible, and choose to be with one another every day. That is partnership.

I didn’t eat much dinner, but it hardly mattered. I had some orange peel beef and brown rice but otherwise just spent time with loved ones. In terms of race nutrition this would be a good choice, moving to liquids and soft foods after 6pm would mean an easier day on the bowels for the race.

We wrapped things up at dinner, said our goodbyes, and took Damon home with us. Damon had flown out for the race having never seen an Ironman race before and knowing how important the day was to me. Brian had been in the second bedroom and until a few weeks prior to the trip had thought he’d shift to a hotel with his girlfriend for the night before the race. The girlfriend thing didn’t work out, so Brian was moving to an air mattress in the front room while Damon got the second bedroom. Damon’s a busy guy – he’s producing a movie of the week for Lifetime TV, directing and producing a series of PSA’s to inspire people to become teachers, as well as actively developing future projects. That he took the time to come to Arizona for two days was huge – it’s been a lot of miles since we met stretching on the grass in Santa Monica talking about our fathers.

Leaving the restaurant we encountered a group of guys dressed up (quite well) as the Ghostbusters. They had the car and a giant inflatable Stay-Puft marshmallow man. They do the dress-up thing for charity and were screening the movie inside the theater for a benefit. I asked for some pictures with them pointing at the camera and reminded them the line is “we’re ready to believe you”.  I am a huge nerd.

I was surprised I slept that night, but sleep came easy even on the crappy bed. The alarm was set for 4am, and though Julian had suggested I start waking early to get adjusted to the early start Arizona doesn’t observe daylight savings time so we had already lost an hour. 4am would still be 3am for me and no amount of adjustment could make that feel any better.

Sunday

Sofia was up at 3:45(!) so she could shower herself awake. I huddled under the covers and at five to 4 I threw off the covers and started my race day. 4am sucks no matter how excited you might be for the day. Still, I was able to eat and do my morning ritual easily. So many races now it is almost automatic. Coffee concoction, oatmeal mixing, sit in front of the computer and waste time percolating the lower bowel. Take care of business, get gear loaded up. It was Damon who looked at me and said, “you need more layers”. He was right, I added another t-shirt and a heavier jacket to account for the desert chill. Anthony had even said the day before to be really warm on race morning so as not to expend calories on shivering in the cold. Damon was more direct, “put on more clothes.”

We loaded up the car with chairs, bags, gear, and ourselves and drove the short distance to drop off Brian at his volunteer post, then me at the race start. Damon got out with me while Sofia parked the car. I waved goodbye to them and made my way into transition.

Ironman is just another triathlon – I walked my bike to the bike tech and had them inflate my tires (I deflated them the day before so they would not shift pressure and pop the way I had heard at Soma). I loaded my bike with 3 bottles of Infinit, strapped the aero bottle to the cockpit, loaded the bento box with Powerbar gels, and was done by 5:45am with 45 minutes to spare before transition closed. I’d rather be early than rushed, so I wandered around transition, got my body marked, and looked for people I knew. I waited in line for the porta-potty and took one last constitutional. I got back to my bike and was surprised to find {REDACTED} there.

“How ya doin’?” {REDACTED} asked.
“What are you doing here?”
“Checking on you. You good? How you feel?
“I’m good. How did you get in?”
“Security here is a joke. Come on, it’s time to get you into your wetsuit.”
“Uh, ok, I still have some time.”
“OK, let’s go find {REDACTED}.”
We walked around transition, couldn’t find her.
“Come on, it’s time to get you into your wetsuit. What are you going to do with your sweatpants?”
“They go in my morning clothes bag and I’m going to drop them…”
“No, man, give me your pants.”
“It’s ok, {REDACTED}, they’ll take care of it.”
“You don’t understand. I’m freezing. Give me your pants.”

Which is how {REDACTED} wound up getting my pants.

I ate a gel at 6:30am, finished sipping my electrolyte drink, and walked towards the swim start. Like March of the Penguins if the penguins were hopped up on maltodextrin, Red Bulls, salt tabs, and nervous terror, we made our way down to the loading ramp. Men in red caps, women in white, we lined up and watched the pro division wave their arms like windmills warming up. We all knew the water was cold and resisted going in, pros included. The pros dove in and swam to their start. At some point the race director or a coordinator insisted that we get into the damn water and the more agro of the racers started jumping in. In front of me a large woman jumped into the black water, bobbed up and looked to her male companion. “I lost my goggles” she said, plainly.

Two hundred triathletes took one collective step backwards as if she were suddenly riddled with plague. The man next to me said, to no one but himself, “she’s fucked.” I eyeball scanned the water for a pair of goggles, but they were gone. I held my hands over my eyes and jumped in, followed by the splashes of a few hundred other people brave enough to tread water for ten minutes.

The canon went off for the pros and I swam forward to the start line. There were still hundreds of triathletes along the lake edge, either nervous or too cold to get into the lake. In soon enough time I was being bumped and nudged by other people herding forward, polite jostling and general conviviality. Turning around and looking behind me I saw a sea of black bodies and red caps, white caps sprinkled throughout. They looked like fancy matches.

Eventually we were all loaded into the lake, bobbing and waiting. The Mayor of Tempe said a few forgettable words, then Mike Reilly said what was probably a well worn speech, and then – boom – the cannon, and I was off.

Everyone writes about the frenzy of the mass swim start. They are all true. You get punched in the head. You get kicked in the eye socket. People scratch the bottom of your feet. Your legs get grabbed. You get a direct punch in the back of the skull, turn, and no one is there. You turn to breathe and get water splashed down your throat and up your nose. You get one clean breath and just before turning down again you swallow water. Your stroke that you worked so hard to get right slams into someone else’s head so you feel like an asshole, but you’re also pissed that person is zig zagging and has messed up your line. The sun is rising directly into your eyes and if you get migraines the sun spot doesn’t clear for five minutes making you wonder if you might get a migraine right there in the water. But you don’t, and you keep going. You remind yourself that the swim, though long, is just a warmup for a long day. Each stroke gets you closer to the turnaround, and closer to the bike. And after a quarter mile things get easier and you’re not fighting so much. This goes on for a time. Then, inexplicably, you are swum over, kicked, and punched again. “Maybe I should go further right” you think. “And add how much more distance to this swim?” you reply. So you let people swim over and maybe you do a closed fist drill just to assert your position and remind them you’re not just flotsam. Then, calm again, and more long steady strokes. The red buoy isn’t that far now. Everyone bunches up again for the turnaround, more punching and kicking, splashing and bumping. But then it’s okay again and it gets easier and at least now the sun isn’t in your eyes.

Three quarters of the way to the end someone kicked or punched me so hard that my left calf contracted in surprise and I cramped. I flipped onto my back and forced my leg to extend. I rolled over and slowly kicked the cramp out until I could barely feel it. I was annoyed but being angry at a phantom was wasted energy so I let it go. I focused on keeping my form and swimming my race.

I made it to the ramp and looked at my watch – 90 minutes exactly. I was dead-on with my estimate. I got helped up the ramp and was surprised by how close the wetsuit strippers were. More surprisingly was {REDACTED} from TNS who had somehow become a wetsuit stripper. I got on my back and {REDACTED} had me out in seconds. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but was so happy someone I knew and trusted was there and part of my race. I found out later that it was an amazing conspiracy – my team was seeing how poorly the wetsuit strippers were doing their job and {REDACTED} wasn’t going to let a teammate have his wetsuit ripped or jacked up by someone hopped up on Red Bulls. So {REDACTED} jumped the rail and just started stripping wetsuits. When I came up, {REDACTED} made sure I was taken care of.

I ran the swim out chute all the way around and yelled my bib number to a volunteer who was supposed to get my bag for me. Didn’t happen. I found my bag on the ground and ran towards the changing tent, detouring a minute to pee. Inside the tent I expected to find folding chairs and maybe picnic tables to lay out supplies, but instead found a hundred sweaty, naked men occupying every folding chair in the room. There was no space. I was moved towards the back wall, “there’s plenty of room in the back!” a volunteer yelled. Yeah, no shit – because it took a full minute to walk back there. Found a seat, stripped off my trunks and pulled on my bike shorts. Took forever – wet legs. Used my towel to clean the filth and rocks off my feet as best I could and pulled on socks and shoes. Scooped a palm full of chamois cream and jammed a hand down my shorts to cover everything. Wiped hands on towel. Put on cloth cap and then helmet, buckling strap. Took off wristwatch, put on Garmin GPS and turned it on. Stuffed everything else back into gear bag.

Ran all the way out of tent, now in bike cleats, and handed my bag to a volunteer. Someone offered sunscreen and, knowing my wife would be happy, accepted. I ran to my bike where a volunteer was removing it from the rack. He handed it to me; I ran to bike out, got to the mount line and was off. From my point of view I knew I took longer than I wanted in transition. When I found out later it was 12 minutes, I admit being somewhat appalled.

I got on the bike and after a brief uphill was rolling comfortably. I immediately began drinking Infinit even though Brian had recommended that I wait ten minutes for my stomach to settle down from the swim. I’ve never had a problem eating or drinking after swimming and as far as I was concerned I was already down calorie so it was important to hydrate and refuel quickly. Something else I’ve seen is that I take off like a rocket post-swim. I’m not aware my heart rate is zooming until I look at my bike speed and see that I am flying. This is where Damon and I have discussed data being a blessing and a curse. Damon will see a fast speed and pull himself back thinking he’s going to blow up too early. I’ll see a fast speed and be pleasantly surprised I’m going that fast. Damon’s years of racing have taught him well, though he could still learn how to ignore the data and push past his comfort zone. My inexperience has bitten me in the ass before, blowing up early and not having anything left in the tank for later. But I have learned there is a happy medium – use the data as a suggestion box for the kind of day you are having. If you’re having a strong day, maybe the speed is just there. But if you’re having a weak day, let the data guide you in backing off to where you should be. On this day I dialed it back just a hair, but also trusted that I had a great bike at Soma and this was just a fast course.

I was hitting good speeds out of the city – 17, 18mph easy. Once I got out to the more desert area I was able to maintain this speed until the Beeline Highway where I encountered some beastly headwinds. I eventually dropped down as low as 14mph. At the turnaround a guy near me said, “and now comes the fun part”. He was right. Within seconds of turning about I was rolling 30mph comfortably. I maintained this solidly all the way back to the first turn, then kept up a high speed until coming into town again. I competed the first lap at 19.76 mph average. I flipped around and saw Brian and the rest of the TNS crew, but they didn’t see me. I pointed my finger at them, grinning, kind of amused they missed me. I heard Eve yell something but was already gone.

The second lap was more of the same, but the winds had changed. Neutral wind outbound, meaning I had to work for speed against the slight uphill, but at least I wasn’t being pushed backwards. At the turnaround the tailwinds were gone so I was only jamming along at 23 mph – as fast as my legs could take me. The special needs station was at mile 60 and I pulled over to get my bag. The volunteer held my bag open for me while I rummaged around and got prepped. Adding water to the first bottle was clumsy but I managed. The second bottle was easier as I realized I could use my rear cages to hold the bottle while I poured in the water. Third bottle was fine, I hadn’t flatted so I didn’t need the extra tube, and I pocketed the Payday bar for later. I thanked the volunteer and clipped back in for the ride. It felt like it took 2-4 minutes total for the stop.

Coming into town was a different experience. I saw Damon first who was doing his finest Tour de France spectator impression running alongside me yelling, “pump, drink, pedal, go!” Then I found my crew cheering me, screaming, making noise. I flipped around and muscled into my third lap. Lap two average speed was 18.37 mph.

Lap three found headwinds going out and me not so happy. What I didn’t know at the time is that it was hot outside. The wind and dry air pulled the sweat off me and my cycling cap was wicking sweat off my brow so I never knew how hot it was. But my head was hurting and my stomach was starting to make the same distress it had in Oceanside. I reminded myself not to eat by feel but eat by the clock and was rigid about a gel every hour and drinking as much as I could. Everything became manageable but the power output definitely was suffering. I hit the turnaround with huge relief, but the entire ride back was plagued with crosswinds. This, combined with road fatigue and dehydration, meant I was shaky. I dropped into a road crack I hadn’t seen and almost pinch-flatted my front tire. I unwrapped the Payday bar and made sure I ate solid food at mile 90, wanting it to be inside me and partially digested before the run. I forced more liquid, but the Infinite didn’t taste very good and it was crusted on my lips. I grabbed a water bottle at an aid station and really enjoyed the taste of clean, simple water. It also helped clear my head some. I focused on seeing my crew again, reminded myself that this was my Ironman, I was doing my Ironman! All I had to do was get to the run and I was golden.

I came into Tempe shaky, nauseated, with a headache, and numb feet. I dismounted and handed off my bike to a volunteer. Someone handed me my run gear. I got into the tent and changed my clothes. My final lap average speed was 18.29 mph – not much different than my second lap. Bike time: 5:57:52, just under six hours. Right on track. Brian had thought I would go 5:40, a number he wasn’t holding me to, since I had done a 2:40 split at Soma. But I knew that I would hold something back on this bike because I knew a marathon awaited me afterwards.

Some people never run a marathon until they do an Ironman. I’ve done three, and while they weren’t fast they were still a marathon. I know what one feels like. They are hard. They are long. Mile 21 is a horror both physically and mentally. There are sayings like, a marathon is 20 miles of running and six point two miles of hell. Or, twenty six miles of hell and point two miles of bliss. Whatever. It’s a long way and it never gets shorter. It is more forgiving to do a marathon as part of an Ironman, however, because it is relative to the preceding distance.

Anyone can run a marathon. Seriously. There are tons of charities that can get anyone of any weight, age, or ability across a marathon finish line. Jeff Galloway’s run/walk method will yield great results without injury. I did the walk/run thing and got down to a 4:30 marathon finish. But there is a point at which you cross over from doing a marathon to racing a marathon. And for men, that difference is the four-hour barrier. You cannot break four hours without training for real. You can be a gifted natural athlete, but going sub-4 without training will hurt you a lot and require you draw upon all your resources. You have to run, or quickly jog a marathon to break four hours. Run for long enough and you’ll see that runners know this and yes, they do judge each other by that number. There is a secret judgment that if you do a consistent +4hr marathon, you must be a pain junkie, or you sabotage your race plan, or you don’t have a race plan, or you are just stupid. It is crazy to punish yourself over and over again to run a +4hr marathon. (Again – for men. I don’t know what this number is for women but there is a number.) Anyone can run a marathon. Anyone who trains hard and commits themselves to a properly periodized race plan can run a sub-4 marathon.

None of this applies to the Ironman. The marathon in an Ironman can be done in amazingly fast times – but mostly it’s done much slower than a standalone marathon time. And it should because the Ironman marathon is a war of attrition. Every moment you spend on that run is a battle against physical collapse. I read about an experiment where they took the fastest African marathoners and had them try an Ironman. Those who made it through the swim had miserable bike splits and their runs were a disaster. Being a great runner simply doesn’t prepare you for what the first two events do to your body.

The day before the race when Brian and I did a brief run he pointed out beyond the course and said, “tomorrow, on the run, out there is where you find out who you are”.

I thought I might be able to pull a 4 hour marathon out of my legs, which meant holding 9:15 or 9:30 miles the whole way. In the transition tent I just wanted to start running and hoped my training would get me forward. I discovered my first big omission of the day – I hadn’t put foot lubricant into my run gear bag. I cleaned off my feet and pulled on clean socks but didn’t have a thing to put between my toes. This was going to hurt a lot.

I made it out of transition and just started moving my feet. My friends and family were all there just a few hundred meters into the run clapping, screaming their damn heads off, crying, and waving signs. It was magical. Brian jogged beside me and asked how I was doing. I said I had a headache and nauseated but would figure something out. He said, “Drink something! You’re dehydrated!” Right. Duh. Not thinking straight. I walked the first aid station and sipped Gatorade and water. No magic there – it helped a little. The next major aid station was like a dreamy oasis. I came in and a volunteer jogged next to me asking what I needed, what he could get me, anything at all. I asked if he had foot lube and he said the tent behind me might have had something. I didn’t want to backtrack so I thanked him, grabbed some water and Gatorade, and kept going.

The run course is three loops of just under nine miles. It loops back on itself through transition and near the finish line just enough to cock tease the runners into agony. The finish is so close and so far all the time. You can hear the cheering and the loudspeakers even across the lake. It is maddeningly close.

The first loop was good – I felt solid, my form was holding up, the leg wasn’t bothering me and each mile was new. It was the second loop that things began to deteriorate.

The second loop is neither new, nor close to the end. The middle ugly miles that just need to get put down to get to the third, final loop. Miles 9 – 18 is just a giant can of suck that must be consumed.

This is the dark place where you have no choice but to face yourself and your own thoughts.

It is out there, in the dark, lonely miles that you find out who you are.

It is out there when the fastest racers have finished and rest of us are struggling that you see who has heart and who has surrendered.

There are moments where you hear someone talking to themselves, sometimes motivating, sometimes saying terrible things, just to get one foot in front of the next.

I was eating by the clock again, fighting a stitch in my side that would move from one side to the other and force me to a walk to find relief. I’d get to an aid station and drink what I could, eat a gel, and debate when I would switch to flat coke and chicken broth.

I found out that I am the person that never quits. That there is always further I can dig. That I have resources and energy beyond my imagination. That I am made better by my friends and family supporting me to reach my goals, and that I race for myself and for them.

Quitting was never an option. Never. Not once did I want to quit. I wanted the pain to end, sure. My feet were on fire, the sun was still hanging in the sky heating up everything, and I wanted the sick feeling to end. But there would be an end and it was a finish line, waiting for me. My friends would be there.

I came around for the third loop and again got charged by seeing my friends – no, now they were all my family, my Iron family, cheering and screaming, willing me to keep going. I actually apologized to Brian – I was sorry I had to walk. He shut that down fast.

“So walk,” he said. “Do whatever you need to do because you’re going to run the last mile and a quarter. I’ve never asked you for anything in your training but today, your gift to me is that you run that finish.”

That third lap was a lot of walking and then running. When I ran I was holding a decent pace of 9:30/mile. But the stitches would come on so strong that I had to walk them out. There was guilt. There was misery. But I would not quit.

The third lap is easier because it’s the last of everything, but it’s also the hardest of them all for the obvious reasons. The last time I would see that damn bridge. The last time I would be deafened by the well-meaning people with megaphones at the aid stations. The last time that girl would tell me how much she liked my mustache. Or that girl. Or that one. (The mustache was very popular.) The last time I’d be called Mark? Nope. That happened a lot. By the time I was on the Rio Salado bridge I was jogging and mentally prepping for the final run. There was an aid station early, but I don’t think I took anything because I started running. Somewhere, somehow I found the energy. It wasn’t in my legs, it came from somewhere else. My heart.

The last bridge was in sight. I started passing people who were walking. I could hear the crowds at the end. I could see the lights. I crossed under the bridge and got faster. I made the left turn for “finish” instead of “loop 2/3” and went even faster.

I crossed through the parking lot making quick left and right turns and I could see the final stretch of bleachers leading to the giant arch. I was pumping my arms, hammering my legs as hard as I could in an all-out sprint. The crowd was going insane. I picked off fifteen people in the final stretch, could feel my head rolling back – my two hundred dollar sunglasses fell off the top of my head and I didn’t even care.

I went through the finish line like a freight train, unstoppable. My eyes were seared blind by the lights and in that moment I knew pure, unadulterated ecstasy. I left every bit of myself on the course. I held nothing back. It was 140 miles of grueling effort and .6 miles of the most incredible feeling I have ever experienced in my life. It was like having molten steel poured into my body and my circulatory system pumping fire into every capillary.

I was turned into an Ironman.

I had enough presence of mind to pull myself back a hair from the finish to let the woman in front of me have her photo moment. I managed to raise my arms above my head, victorious. I recall that I saw the clock read 12:42:57, which were just abstract numbers to me at the time. I never heard Mike Reilly say my name. Instead, I was caught by a woman who put her arms around me, wrapped me in a blanket, held me upright and said softly, beautifully, “you are an Ironman.” It meant more to me than hearing it over the PA system. In all of my visualizations I had never thought about the moment beyond the finish line – but there it was, something more beautiful and meaningful than a disembodied voice saying my name. She guided me to someone who put a medal around my neck, and another person who took the chip from my leg.

I saw Sofia just beyond the gate and rushed to her, burying my face into her neck and crying, crying, crying. My breath came in giant, hitching, hypoxic gasps. I had gone anaerobic for the final mile and could not find my breath, but I knew I could stop running and being in my wife’s arms meant I was going to be fine.

I got hugs and handshakes from everyone, and then got moved to the finish photo. Damon took charge as I emerged through the gate and kept everyone moving, but most importantly, kept me moving.

My friends, my family, everyone who had given their day and more to watch an incredibly long event put their arms around me and had tears in their eyes. I could see how proud my parents were, and they told me so. My mother-in-law didn’t need any words, she just put her arms around me and held me close.

I could tell something had clicked for Charrissa. I think seeing me do this thing showed her that anything is possible if you choose to commit to it and work your ass off. I know that she is a woman in search of community and has found it in triathlon. I also think that she’s seen in TNS training a group of people like The Breakfast Club who wouldn’t seem like the Ironman type. But I believe this race convinced her and her boyfriend Dave, that they can do this and we can help them get there. I want to help them achieve this.

I didn’t know where Brian was, I knew he saw me finish but we couldn’t find him. After some time he did find our group and later he would tell me how much seeing me sprint that finish meant to him. He asked for it as a gift, but he didn’t expect how big of a gift it would be when unwrapped. I am an Ironman because of his coaching, and his friendship. The legs alone won’t get you to the finish line, it has to come from your heart.

Damon took command of the motley crew and guided us to the transition area so I could get my bike and gear bags. But what I remember most is that he went into his bag and pulled out sweatpants. Kneeling, he gently raised my legs and eased me into my pants one foot at a time. He made sure I was warm, my needs were being met, and kept me focused on the little objectives to move me forward. Damon is one of those people, like Anthony, that people want to be around and do things for. Doors open for Damon. What makes Damon an incredible human being is that he opens doors for others. He acts from compassion, he recognizes the best in people and cultivates it. He has no time for bullshit and nonsense, cuts it right off. Because what he seeks is the emotional truth of the moment and suffers no one’s stupidity or selfishness when it gets in the way of that moment. What I know about Damon is he wants the whole race retold from beginning to end – not because of the logic puzzles, or the nerdy race data, but he wants to know the emotional changes that happen only in competition. He has the heart of a champion and gets as much joy from the retelling of other’s victories as his own.

After being dressed and handed bags, Eve was able to put her arms around me and explode in joy. Every emotion for Eve is real, which means the whole day was one massive emotional ride for her. At dinner the night before she told me that she was in awe in how publicly I lived my life, sharing my experience with others in a way to help them or show them a way it can be done. Eve spends her days tending to the needs of sick children, feeding them, making sure their bodies get the nutrition they need to get better. But what fuels Eve is being able to experience and bring out joy in others. This makes her extremely vulnerable, but it’s also what makes her exceptional.

My family is incredible. Throughout the day I could see faces of the people I love as I flew by. My in-laws, their dear friends who have been wonderful to us over the years, my brother in-law and his son, people who didn’t need to be there but have loved me and supported me as family for years. My father in-law looked delighted to be there, just having a ball. And I found out later than my mother-in-law was there from dark to dark with Sofia, making sure her needs were being met while cheering me on as well. My in-laws have fed me, nurtured me, cheered for me, and supported me throughout this journey.

My parents flew in across the country to witness the race and something interesting happened. I could see my mother waving signs and cheering (she is highly visible!), but I never saw my father during the race. I saw him afterwards, when it was over, and he was weeping tears of pride. But to tell the truth I also felt a great sadness in him. I was euphoric, high as a kite and being lifted up by a dozen people, and I felt oceans away from my father. My pursuit of health and athleticism began five years ago with watching him almost die. He has been a constant reader and commenter on my blog so I know he has observed my journey. But I do not write simply to be observed. I want to inspire others to experience the joy of personal transformation, digging deeper than they thought possible and emerging victorious. I think my father has survived a lot of things, but I have learned that survival without joy is empty. Vicarious joy in other’s achievements is heartwarming, but joy from personal achievement is heart-building.

Brian eventually found us and we collectively walked away from the race to our cars to rendezvous back at the condo. At one point during the race I told Brian I loved him. Brian had seen my true self and knew I had the heart of an Ironman. At the same time I’ve seen Brian’s true self – he has the unique ability to grow a human being into something they did not think possible in themselves. He could be a podium-level athlete if he wanted, but that’s not his true measure. I’ve said before that the measure of a man is not his ability to suffer, but to transcend the pain and experience joy. Brian is a man who can teach people how to transcend suffering. He has the How because he learned on his own the Why. He has transcended suffering on his own and has found the joy in helping others. I found out that not only did he help me to a strong finish that day, but earlier he motivated his friend Anthony to sprint to a 9:30 finish; passing two people in his age group in the very last seconds to secure a Kona slot. Two huge victories in one day, just hours apart. That is coaching and friendship of the highest order.

I skipped second grade. I never graduated high school. I left high school after tenth grade to go to college at fifteen. I never graduated; they kicked me out because the bills weren’t being paid. I was considered a prodigy for most of my childhood and young adult life, mature beyond my years and smarter than everyone else my age. What they don’t tell you at this college of mine is that eventually, that shit wears off. Sometime around age 30 you’re actually expected to have accomplished something, not just acknowledge that you’re a smarty-pants.

Today I am an Ironman. That title won’t fade with time or lose its meaning. It has brought me closer to my family by showing them what is possible and it has created new friendships with a shared, deep understanding. By becoming a coach I will help others to experience this incredible feeling.

I’m looking forward to sharing the road.

Special thanks: my incredible friends and family who contributed inspirational words and pictures to my IMAZ book – Seth, Stephan, Cate, Team Mars, Jewels, Carolyn, Jen, Socket, and my dear sister Eden – you absolutely were with me on race day. Jill Miller for undoing the damage I keep doing to myself. Fixing my muscles also fixes my head and heart. Tim Bomba for your zen-like approach to Ironman racing and giving back to the community, and the entire Ocean 101 crew for welcoming me into your wet, rubbery arms. Michael B. for bridging the gap from blog reader to TNS member, to valued training partner. Otto, your photographs are the best when you care about your subject so I feel especially honored that you shoot me so well. Ironman Julian for being the first Ironman semite I knew; providing valuable advice and loaning stellar race wheels. Eric, Adam, and Kara for coming out and being instantly awesome. Ironman Lynne for going first and showing that women can open up serious cans of whoop ass. Gavi – you were there at the beginning and are blossoming into a coach yourself. Jim Lubinski for being the nicest guy who can rip the living shit out of a race course. Cortney, for her belief in TNS’s success. Scott at Triathlete Zombies for being the best wrench out there. Nate Loyal for the perfect bike fit that took me all the way through race day. John Gamba, for the sheer enthusiasm of the sport and wanting to know all the details of my training even though we’ve never met in person. Dan Quinn for being the rabbit on a number of those long rides. Joanna, who is surely going to rock her own Ironman soon and evaluate more variables than I have. And to you, faithful reader, thank you for following.

Already mentioned but saying it again. Team IronMax: Brian, Damon, Eve, Charrissa, Dave, Klatzkers, Millers, Grosses, and Strausses – THANK YOU.

Without Sofia, none of this would be possible. She swells my heart and expands my lungs, keeping me aloft, making my life better.

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12 responses to “Ironman Arizona

  1. weeping. just…weeping.

  2. You are an IRONMAN…IRONMAX! :-) Awesome story. I’ve told you before, but i’ll tell you again…i’m so proud of you. So happy for your amazing day.

  3. I’m fucking crying at work, you bastard. I miss you, and I am so, so proud to know you.

  4. Bravo Max…Some have the gift of Gab…You have the gift of the written word…This was an amazing read…Very proud of you my man…Way to go Ironman!

  5. Moving.
    Inspiring.
    Mr. IronMax, you can write as well as you can Swim/Bike/Run.

  6. I loved this -what an inspiration! I cried too, but considering it’s me that’s probably not a big surprise. I am so impressed by your amazing memory for detail.
    Congratulations, and thank you !
    (Oh and we all love you, by the way.)

  7. i live my life proudly hugged by curly brackets.

  8. You have coached us all in this process Max. It is an honor to help “fix” and finagle your muscles, and an even greater honor to share that time together. Cut and paste, cut and paste…I have a million new inspirational quotes for my Yoga Tune Up students thanks to you! All love.

  9. Aaahhhh the post I’ve been waiting for and it did not disappoint. You continue to inspire and delight me with the tales of your journey and discoveries of your inner self. I also especially love your acknowledgement and appreciation and LOVE of Sofia – a true partnership in all ways. Pam and I love you both so much and can’t wait to see you soon. xoxo

  10. Great… really interesting subject. I will blog about it likewise!!

  11. I do trust all of the ideas you’ve presented in your post. They’re really convincing and can definitely work. Still, the posts are too quick for novices. May you please extend them a little from subsequent time? Thanks for the post.

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