The sun rose just past six am over the east of Tempe Town lake. The man-made recreational body runs several miles long surrounded on both sides by manicured parks, a running path, with arcing bridges crisscrossing the water. I was positioned at the second to last buoy before the left turn turnaround for the 2010 Ironman Arizona race. As the desert sun’s not quite warming rays pierced through the chilly morning air I had time to reflect on the past year and what had brought me to sitting in a cold puddle of water in a kayak, hovering near a giant yellow buoy, with tears in my eyes.
13 weeks ago I was asked to coach a friend to his first Ironman. He had been coached by some of the best triathlon coaches in Southern California and now he was asking me to get him to the biggest race of his life. Dave served two tours in Iraq, is a disciplined athlete, but had some distinct training weaknesses we had discussed many times over post-ride brunches in Malibu. He and his girlfriend were at my Ironman race in 2009 and signed up on the spot together. Primarily he was looking for accountability and communication, which he had not been getting from the premier coaches that are heavily promoted by our local tri club. There is a pay-to-play coaching hierarchy here with a clear pecking order in the coaching businesses. Some of the local coaches hold their nose and pay up the sponsorship fees to get access to the pool of athletes. My business partner and I didn’t want to run our business that way so we chose simply to run our coaching business and community our way and see whom we attracted. It has worked well for us, and though we lost a lot of steam this year because of my personal life and my business partner’s new job we haven’t lost sight of our core values and the TNS esprit de corp.
I didn’t immediately say yes to his request, even though I was flattered. Taking on his plan meant bringing him up to Ironman distance in a very short amount of time and 12 weeks of planning is barely enough. It would be a challenge to use everything I have learned so far from being coached, my USAT training, and all the collective knowledge I’ve absorbed from reading, talking to others, and observing. Dave had received his USAT certification earlier in the year and has a lot of the same knowledge, so I thought the chances were high that we would wind up getting into long discussions about why I structured his plan a certain way, or a lot of second-guessing. To his immense credit, once I agreed to be his coach he never once questioned a workout plan or criticized my style. When we entered into our agreement he was an exceptional client, only pointing out the occasional errors in my workout plans when certain numbers didn’t line up.
I agreed to be his coach because it would be tough. I had ridden with Dave enough times and been his friend through several races to study him and hear his thought process. I was absolutely nervous about the job, I didn’t know if I was ready. When I desperately tried to reach Brian to ask him to coach me coaching, his very unavailability made it so I had to trust that I had the skills. Brian was flying all over the country setting up the Ultimate Football League and was accessible via email, often with a time delay. I could look at his training plans he made for his two clients and of course, draw on the sizable library of workouts he had spent months inputting into our coaching software. However, when it came down to plan design and execution I interviewed Dave for half an hour and then got to crunching in Excel.
Dave traditionally took Mondays off after his big weekends. I moved him to Tuesdays because I wanted to use Monday as active recovery in the pool while adding form drills and water mileage. That meant figuring out how to space breakthrough workouts – the defining workouts in his plan – in the remaining days. Ideally he could have done a big day on Wednesday following his rest day but this wasn’t going to work as he had started a new job that was consuming his attention and time, part of why he very much needed a coach to get him to his goal. He could make Fridays long, but this meant sacrificing Saturday’s workout to recovery, a day usually a sweet spot for a long ride with the many drop-in groups in town. Still, with careful planning and some creative sliding of time I was able to concoct a plan that included a base training period with a steady increase in mileage, a build phase that pushed his threshold and raised his fitness, and then peaked him for his big race. I learned to say No to his requests to throw in races that sabotaged his plan. The races he was firmly committed to I added and used as training days, partly to wrestle control back of events that wouldn’t have been part of an Ironman plan. That is, throwing in an Olympic distance race in the last 12 weeks of an Ironman plan for an athlete who has no problems competing at that distance doesn’t serve the plan. Doing TWO Olympic distance races back to back would be fine if placed properly in the build phase. With Tempe Town Lake exploding its bladder as all elderly uncared for things do, the SOMA 70.3 race that kicks off the final monster training period was canceled. SOMA is the same spot as Ironman Arizona and functions as perfect race prep. Last year I went into that race weekend in a constant migraine and set a PR for the 70.3 distance. I wanted to put Dave through a similar “Helloween” and had to devise something new.
I had him sign up for the Las Vegas Triathlon in Lake Mead near the Hoover Dam. Eve signed up as well, wanting to finally conquer the half Ironman distance after several misfired attempts. I signed up for it too, primarily because I hadn’t raced any long courses in 2010. The first half of the year was simply emotional survival and rebuilding life after my dad’s death. That immediately segued into supporting Sofia while she finished her master’s degree, a herculean effort of endurance for her. Finishing her research paper took everything we had and like an endurance race there were many points where she wanted to quit and had to dig in to find the energy to push through. Her graduation was a joyous occasion and an emotional roller coaster. My father’s absence was felt constantly, he was very much a part of Sofia’s grad school experience as her local parent when she was in Baltimore. The graduation ceremony was bittersweet because of how wonderful it was to have a good time, finally, and to know constantly that someone important was missing. My coaching of the CHLA team took over my own training and I barely rode more than 20 miles at a single stretch most of the summer. Racing the Las Vegas triathlon would be my infantile way of trying to mourn my lost year of training and prove (to whom, I don’t know) that I could roll out of bed and do a half Ironman.
The web site for the Las Vegas triathlon claims it’s the flattest Las Vegas bike course. This is a lie; it is only flat relative to the other races that use the area like Silverman, considered the toughest Ironman distance race in North America. The course is flat the way Sofia Vergara is flat compared to a photo finish at a blimp race. Because the race is in the Vegas desert with an extreme heat warning they set an aggressive time cutoff, with the swim and bike portions to be completed in under 4 hours and 45 minutes. Dave had been fighting GI distress for weeks (gastrointenstinal, not Government Issue) and then came down with the flu, enough illness to hinder his training schedule dramatically. Still, he made the trip. I carpooled with Eve while Sofia stayed home for quiet time with the dogs. I’m going to say this because it’s worth it – my wife supported me driving to Las Vegas with a cute single blonde girl and share a hotel without suspicion or jealousy. I have the best wife on earth. (To be completely honest, she was jealous of the trip because she likes road trips and staying in hotels with me, but the cute single blonde was not a factor.)
The race was mostly a disaster except for the fact that Dave made the cutoff, didn’t die of heatstroke, and did enough of the run to know how it felt. Then he puked and called it a day, wisely. Eve swam and raced her heart out and missed the cutoff by a minute. I’ve never seen her that pissed off before. As for me, I cut my toe on the rocks just before the starting gun went off, then had a great swim. When I got to my rack my bike was thrown on the ground sideways and all my water had emptied from my aero bottle. When I rolled out of transition I noticed my foot was still bleeding into my shoes and my big toe was sliced at the joint. By the turnaround on the bike my legs were on fire from near constant climbing and I had consumed most of my liquids. By mile 33 after 3300 feet of climbing, and temperatures at 103 degrees at 10am I was almost out of water, my speed had dropped to 8 miles per hour, and I was seeing Leprechauns (not indigenous to the Nevada desert). I dismounted my bike and slowly walked, waiting to be picked up by the sag wagon. My first DNF. It didn’t bother me much. I wanted to do the race for fun and when it stopped being fun and started being dangerous I stopped. Better to be taken back in the wagon than picked up by an ambulance. I was Eve’s ride home and if I wound up in the hospital with heatstroke – or worse – my dumb move would have caused problems for her. I didn’t know at the time she was having her own meltdown at transition. We were a fun group afterwards, grumbling about our DNFs and giving the giant, nasty, brutish mountains the finger as we left stewing in our own stink for the drive home.
Even with that nightmare Dave was still on track for his Ironman. I planned a number of big breakthrough workouts of both distance and difficulty and then got creative with making up my own workouts. Some were very straightforward and listed splits or effort goals. The more I thought about it the more I realized that a workout has a narrative. There’s a purpose for each workout, there are goals and turning points through the period, and there are mental strategies being trained as much as physical objectives. So I began writing. I created a workout called Shark Attack! where I had Dave do a long ocean swim but at the final 100 meters pretend he saw a shark and hammer the final sprint to the beach. Once on shore, he was to strip out of his wetsuit and run two minutes south or north on the sand, barefoot. Then run back, get his stuff, and change for a run workout. The workout accomplished a few things including finding sprint energy at the end of a long swim, getting used to running out of the water, and also the mental tool of feeling pursued. I gave Dave a version of Shark Attack! most Sundays. Ironman distance is not just a physical challenge it’s a grueling mental test. There are long periods of loneliness on the course once you exit Tempe’s downtown. Cheering throngs congregate around the Ironman village as the course loops back on itself and there are many areas to camp out all day to watch a competitor. In the meantime, that athlete is out in the desert or across the lake in a wasteland of boring scenery and mental doldrums. The ability to occupy the mind is a critical part of long course work, knowing what nasty voices surface after moving constantly for 8 hours. We learn who we are out there in the Nothing.
Some coaches believe in overdistancing their athletes so that race day is a blip: 120 mile rides and 26 mile runs, or other crazy distances during training. Some coaches follow a similar philosophy as the “anyone can run a marathon” programs, limiting distance so that race day is the biggest mileage the athlete will ever do. For example, I’ve read plans where the biggest workout is an 80 mile ride followed by a 90 minute run. This is thought to prevent injury by reducing the training load on the athlete. I don’t think there is any one rule for all athletes. I’ve met some workhorses who can crush a massive volume of training and still come back for more. I’ve met delicate flowers whose ankles could snap running more than a 5k who want to do an Ironman. The answer, I think, is to tailor the plan to the person. It’s the coach’s job to be flexible and design a plan the client can execute. Failure on race day is a shared responsibility. Success comes from consistent plan execution.
As we grew closer to the race I began to get more nervous for Dave. Work was keeping him very busy and we texted infrequently. I didn’t fully know where he was physically, though he said that he felt relaxed and ready. I trusted him to know himself best. The taper period is too late for any breakthrough workouts. The work is either done and banked or nonexistent. Sofia and I began to make plans for our trip to support Dave. Then a friend’s father died.
This would be our fifth death of the year. Our friend who managed and coordinated our wedding suddenly lost his father. As a family we immediately went to him and his mother just to bring food and offer whatever support we could. It was remarkable to see him exactly where I was just 9 months prior. He even said the exact sentiment that he had to keep reminding himself his dad was dead and not just on a trip somewhere. Sofia ended up being able to design and lay out the memorial booklet and, this felt bizarre, I helped our friend by editing his dad’s obituary. The memorial service was the Saturday before the race so Sofia stayed behind to represent us at the service while I drove to Arizona with Eve. Another hotel with the same girl, another road trip without Sofia. She flew out after the service and I retrieved her from the airport.
Dave’s race would be a party. His girlfriend was supposed to be racing as well, but due to being hit by a truck earlier in the year she wasn’t able to train or race. Frankly, all of us are done with hospitals for a while. That also meant the race was a constant reminder for her of the year she lost, even while cheering and supporting Dave. Late in the race day I pulled her aside and talked briefly about her racing. I pointed out that excluding the accident she was building a new life with Dave, a new home, a new job, with a new puppy. All of those required time and attention immediately and there would always be more Ironman races.
We ate dinner at P.F. Chang’s, not ten feet from where we had all dined together a year before for my race. Dave and his girlfriend’s parents were meeting for the first time and seemed to be getting along wonderfully. I spent much of the dinner talking to a five year old about cannibalism and fire fighting. My wife has taught me that the best way to talk to children is not to ask yes or no questions and I’m frequently amazed by the results this yields. I use it for adults, too.
It was important to toast Dave, pointing out how hard he worked for this race, and I said how fortunate he was to have a loving and supportive partner and family. I was excited for him and grateful for the opportunity to see him change. An Ironman changes you forever. I consciously did not thank him for letting me coach him because in that moment I thought pointing it out would be redirecting the attention onto me. Maybe that was a mistake and I should have found a way, but no matter which way I thought about it I felt self-centered even pointing it out. After my toast Dave got up and toasted his partner and family and thanked me, which was incredibly kind. He did all the work. I just got inside his mind and poked around.
I volunteered weeks prior to be on a kayak during the swim. I was up at 4 am, just like race day, scarfing oatmeal and being cranky and resentful at the hour. Sofia and Eve dropped me off at the marina and departed to see Dave in transition before the race. I dressed in layers, which were still not enough for the cold. I borrowed a pair of waterproof pants from Eve, amazed the elastic stretched enough for me to fit. Damn good I did as the moment I got in the kayak I was sitting in a puddle of cold water for three hours. We were instructed to fill in the gaps between the buoys, nosing our kayak’s bow along the race course. The Ironman course is a long rectangle inside Tempe Town lake. Athletes enter near downtown for a “wet start” floating en masse until the canon goes off and everyone goes at once. I was positioned at the second to last buoy before the left turn to head back to the beginning, and possibly because few people wanted to be out that far it was just me and another guy chilling in the dark. With the water temperature 61 degrees I wished I had my wetsuit and hoped Dave wouldn’t freeze.
At sunrise, floating in the kayak, I had time to reflect on the past year how much had changed so dramatically. I was an Ironman. A coach. My wife graduated from her three-year masters program. We are not preventing a pregnancy. My father was dead. My mother was dating someone and was happy, traveling again, and her business was doing much better after some scary periods. I was being paid to write a documentary proposal. I was signed up for two races in 2011 and with luck would be coaching the CHLA team again. I have good friends, a nice place to live, and everyone is healthy. I miss my dad every day.
I could hear the gun fire signaling the pro start and it wasn’t long before I could see what looked like low flying birds breaking the waterline. As the pros got closer the image resolved itself – the birds were the high elbow point of their stroke and the pros were clustered together in a tight pack. I maneuvered my kayak to the invisible line between the two final buoys and waited. What is most striking about being less than 10 feet from the professionals is that they are silent. Their stroke and kick is so efficient they barely make a splash in the water. One pro led the pack by twenty feet with a dozen men clumped together moving as one. Shortly after was the second cluster of pro men, then the pink caps of the pro women. A last group representing the remainder of the pros slid through with a little more splash – the sound indicating the relative inefficiency of their form.
Then the beast arrived. First came the very fast age groupers in the lead, smooth and fast. The point of the spear, they had perhaps a few dozen meters on the expanding main pack that grew rapidly. The fast, experienced swimmers had no trouble maintaining a straight line, hooking the left turn buoy and going on their way. But as the pack expanded and bloated wider a few people cheated the inside of the buoy and had to swim right to get back on course for the turn. Soon, the main pack was a noisy, snorting, splashing, spitting, grunting sea beast with two thousand heads. Hut, the kayak leader, shot along the inside course and bellowed “SWIM TO YOUR RIGHT!” loudly. I picked up the yell and hoisted my kayak paddle pointing the swimmers to get back on course. “You gotta herd them! Push them back!” he yelled to me. I had been so focused on my instructions to look for people struggling, drowning, cramping, or having problems I hadn’t thought (or been told) that the pack would lose direction or cheat the distance. It was quite a long while of yelling and herding. I saw a few people get pulled out of the water into volunteer’s boats, a few people needed to hang on to other’s kayaks to take a rest break, and only once did someone yell for help and a “sweeper” kayak was faster than I in getting to her.
Once the pack had finished we were left with only a few very slow people. Then it was down to just 3: an old man doing the backstroke, a 22 year old girl, and an older woman slowly making their way down the course. I could hear the announcer at the swim finish and the cheering people indicate the timing of the event and later Sofia filled me in on the details. As the clock was counting down the minutes to the cutoff time Mike Reilly, the “voice of Ironman” yelled for the kayaks to form a chute in the water to guide the last swimmers in. Every time the swimmer would stop to look up for direction they lost precious seconds and so the kayaks formed a gauntlet of screaming, cheering help. Each time a swimmer made it in, the crowd would scream in thunderous joy, a surge of emotion as they just made the cutoff. The kayakers would raise their paddles in the air like Tusken raiders, hollering in victory.
Each of the stragglers had their own kayak or paddleboarder babysitting them so my job ended shortly past 9:30 am. I docked my kayak and hoofed it the few miles over the bridge back to transition. I found Sofia and we got coffee, she briefed me on the race start details and saw Dave get out of the water happy and strong. It would be at least 90 minutes before he made it back into town and from her experience last year Sofia was damn good at knowing when to break for food and naps.
We spent the remainder of the day waiting for Dave and other friends doing the race to make their loops and flash brief appearances as they worked their way around the course. The wind began early after the swim and only got more disgusting as the day wore on. The Ironman Arizona course appears flat but it’s a false flat leaving town and up the Beeline Highway, offering a nice slight downhill on the return. The weather is the biggest vector, changing frequently and offering extreme heat, freezing cold, desert flooding rain, and unpredictable wind. This race was extremely cold, windy, and offered random freezing rain storms. Dave reported later that he got a tailwind on the slight uphill and was able to maintain speed but after the turnaround he got slammed with a headwind and occasional deadly crosswind. Woe to the lightweights using disk wheels who skidded all over the course. After the race I asked a guy with a rear disk if he regretted using it and he replied, “I’m two hundred fifteen pounds. Wasn’t a problem.” Dave rented a Zipp 808 rear and 404 front, offering a nice aero profile without danger of falling over and still had to battle the wind by leaning far into the gust. This was an issue when the wind changed and he was deep in a lean in the wrong direction.
Every time we saw him he looked good. He was working hard, but having the time of his life. After we saw him a third time and knew he had two hours in the last bike leg Sofia and I ate, then ran back to the hotel so I could change my kayak pants and get warm. We napped ten minutes and then went back to the race. We cheered the runners, waiting for Dave to make his loops and using the Ironmanlive web site to monitor pace. Technology is wonderful if you’re not too exhausted to understand it. It took us a while to realize we were clocking his progress by when he crossed the timing mat, but there was a lag for posting to the web site and at one point when we thought he would be another twenty minutes it was Sofia who waved her arms and said he’d be coming any second – at which point he appeared right in front of us as if on command. Sofia’s done this so many times she should be trusted completely.
Eve is a born cheerleader. A constantly enthusiastic fan she read the name on the bib of everyone who passed her, made eye contact, and said something nice and encouraging to them. “Rich, you’re doing great.” “Michelle, you look amazing.” “Phil, work it!” She danced, she clapped, she flirted – next year we’re making her a t-shirt that says I’M EVE – YOUR BIGGEST FAN. And it will be true.
It is a very long day for everyone, both athletes and spectators. At one point on the run someone yelled at his family, “comfy?! Can I get you anything?” They weren’t paying attention as he blew by. One of Brian’s athletes pointed at me accusatorily on each loop as if I was slacking by sitting. Well, I was. I had my plastic clacker and cheered. It’s a day of drama, exhaustion, and mustering energy from deep reserves.
We watched as our friend and TNS coach Lynne crossed the finish line in eleven and a half hours, winning fifth place in her age group. She was none too happy with the course but the big plexi trophy will look good on her mantle. She got to hang out with Chrissie Wellington who set a world’s record for fastest Ironman by a woman, ever, finishing in about eight and a half hours.
We waited by the finish line for about an hour, cold, a little wet, but eager and thrilled for Dave’s big moment. When he came through ten minutes faster than we expected (he picked up his pace on the third loop) he was beaming, his families were crying, and it was all incredibly moving. Seeing him finish, seeing his family swarm him, seeing his emotional release at being done in the arms of his partner, and the pride on his father’s face – I knew exactly where he was in that moment.
It wasn’t until we were standing at the finish line that Sofia really started weeping. I put my arms around her and held her, asking what was up. She said she kept seeing that this was the first time Dave and his girlfriend’s parents were together, and this same place was the last time our families were together. This duality infused every moment of the weekend.
There is nothing like the finish chute at an Ironman. Ironman is a well-oiled machine and World Triathlon Corporation, the parent company of Ironman knows they have a drug people want. All criticism of WTC aside, it is a day of constant personal transformation more intense than anything some freakishly large pituitary damaged monster can yell from a stage. You have to earn your 140.6 miles inch by inch.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Dave for trusting me to coach him and inviting me in to be a part of his big day. His girlfriend was amazing in her support of him, and both of their families were fully present and engaged in his victory. I continue to have to most supportive and loving spouse in the world and she is someone I learn from all the time. I am honored by friends like Eve who share her loving enthusiasm unabashedly. And the emails and text messages from friends who were desperate for details of the day both about Dave’s race and my own emotional state during the day.
It should come as no surprise that I signed up for Ironman Arizona 2011. My volunteer status allowed me priority registration for a race that sells out within hours of opening (a great method for incentivizing volunteers). What I have come to realize is if you do not plan in advance for happy events you will wind up just reacting to bad ones. On the drive back home Sofia and I began planning our 2011 around my training, racing, coaching, writing, and our family events. 16 weeks after this race I will run the LA Marathon trying to set a Personal Record of 3 hours and 30 minutes. 16 weeks after that I’ll race the Vineman 70.3 in wine country on my father’s birthday. It’s close to my mother’s 60th birthday and Sofia’s parent’s 65th birthdays, all important celebrations. 16 weeks after that will be Ironman Arizona. We might be pregnant. We might move to a new city if work opportunities arise. Anything can happen.