Monday, December 23, 2013

IMAZ Part Three: The Swim

If you missed Part One or Part Two of the IMAZ Recap:
Click HERE for Part One: The Road to Tempe
Click HERE for Part Two: Countdown to Race Day. 

IMAZ Part Three: The Swim (and race morning)

Like most people, I don’t sleep well the night before a race. This was especially true the night before IMAZ. 

Alarm clock was set to 3:30 AM on race morning
In addition to our room alarm clock being set for 3:30 AM, we’d asked the front desk for a wake-up call and also set both of our cell phones. But then, in the wee hours of the morning, an Amber Alert went out, apparently hitting all the cell phones in the area.
Amber Alert sent via text on the morning of November 17, 2013 in Tempe, AZ
The alert was off-set by several minutes between my phone and my husband’s so by the time he’d turned the alert off on his phone and we’d just fallen back to sleep, the alert sounded on my phone. The sequence repeated itself 15-20 minutes later. When it was finally time to get up, I felt like I’d hardly slept at all but, rather, laid there with my eyes shut for 5 or 6 hours.

Transportation from the hotel to Tempe Beach Park (TBP) was limited, so we signed up for the 4:50 AM shuttle to get us to the park by 5 AM when transition opened. In the chilly, pre-dawn hours, with beams of light from various headlamps cutting through the darkness, the usual pre-race ritual began: Filling water bottles with Infinit, stocking the bento box with gels, Larabars, Fig Newtons, dried fruit & mini Snickers, getting body marking, putting on sunscreen, dropping off Special Needs bags, sipping Infinit and water and eating a Lara Bar, squeezing into a wetsuit, and waiting, waiting, waiting in line for the Port-O-Pot.

And then it was time to head to the water. As more than 2700 triathletes filed out of transition and toward the lakefront, the canon blasts at 6:45 and 6:50 AM signaled the start of the men’s and women’s pro race. From a short pier, we jumped into the frigid water and swam approximately 100 yards to the swim start, just beyond two spectator-lined bridges.

Spectators line the bridge as swimmers head to the swim start
I was shivering and treading water, jockeying for position on the inner edge of the front third of the pack, when people behind me and toward the middle started screaming.

“What’s going on?” I asked some anonymous green-capped, wetsuit-clad, goggle-wearing guy nearby. He told me people were calling for a medic. We think someone had started to panic. Or possibly gone hypothermic, I thought. At 63 degrees, the water was freezing and the air, at only 54, did not help.

And though we’d been cautioned at the pre-race meeting to “look before you leap,” I found out after the race that someone had been taken out of the water on a stretcher with what were likely fractured ribs—because someone jumped on him. For that poor guy, his day was over before it began.

Swimmer leaps into the Tempe Town Lake
The rising sun brightened the sky from dusky shades of dawn to the light blues and lavenders of early morning—and we were off. Arms thrashing, legs, kicking, whipping the placid lake into a churning angry sea of neoprene. 

The madness begins
It was almost impossible to take more than one stroke without running into someone. Early in the melee I took a foot to the face. Luckily there was no force behind the kick—I didn’t end up with a bloody nose or goggles knocked off—but I could clearly feel the contours of a heel on my forehead, a sole on my nose and toes on my chin. Not the most pleasant sensation.

Ariel view of the swim
By the time I’d rounded the first two buoys, my heart rate had slowed and I was able to take a few strokes in a row without colliding with someone. But suddenly my left foot and calf cramped, locking my foot in a flexed position and splaying my toes in odd directions.

I stopped swimming to massage my lower leg, but the muscle tension required to keep treading and stay afloat did not allow me to fully relax and next thing I knew, my entire left leg was seized by cramps, with seemingly every muscle from hip to ankle turning to stone. And it literally felt like stone too, as if the very weight of my leg would drag me under. So I did the one thing I have never done before (though I have thought about it many, many times); I flagged a boat.

Safety kayaks in Tempe Town Lake
A nearby kayaker saw my flailing arm and paddled over. I had a brief moment of panic, envisioning myself sinking before she got to me, leisurely paddling as she was. (Or so it seemed). But she did get to me in time and instructed me to hang on to the nose of the kayak, speaking in a soothing, encouraging voice, saying things like, “Just relax; you’re half way there; you’ve got this; you’re doing a great job.”

Eventually, the cramps subsided and I was on my way again, though thoroughly chilled from bobbing around in the water like a cork. And, from not having the sense to wear a full-sleeve wetsuit. My arms were cold in the water and even colder in the air with each stroke.

I remembered my husband saying “just swim faster” when I fretted about being cold, and so I tried. I tried to sprint, to paddle as hard and fast as I could, but my arms were simply too numb to feel them much less move them very fast. My stroke was slow and lethargic.

Swim Exit at IMAZ
Finally, I had the metal staircase in sight—a literal stairway to heaven—and I climbed out as quickly as my numb body would let me and headed for the first stripper I saw. 

This, not to be confused with the kind of strippers found at the Dream Palace (See IMAZ Part Two) but, rather, volunteers whose job it was to strip the neoprene from our bodies as we lay flailing on the ground like fish out of water. 

Wetsuit strippers 
I’ve never had a stripper before, so this was all new to me. I’ve always  had to pry my own self out of my own wetsuit—which is no easy task, I might add—so what a privilege it was to sit down and have someone expertly yank the thing off with one swift tug. Nice. That is, until the cold air hit my wet and now basically bare body. O.M.G. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been so cold in my entire life and I am not kidding.

I balled up my wetsuit and held it in front of my body—hoping it would serve as some sort of shield and provide even the tiniest bit of protection and warmth as I ran—and ran and ran—what seemed like the length of an entire football field to retrieve my Swim-to-Bike transition bag and then run at least half that distance back again to the changing tents.

Swim-to-Bike Gear Bags and Changing Tents
The goddesses in that tent helped me do the things my numb fingers could not do—untie the bag and retrieve from it the things I needed to ride: cycling shoes, socks, gloves, helmet, sunglasses, Larabar, and thank the almighty universe, my arm warmers. 

My frozen face and lips could not form words so I simply nodded or shook my head as the volunteer held the items up one-by-one.

Next thing I knew, I was off and running again, my bike, having magically appeared from its spot on the rack, stood waiting for me—shining like a welcoming beacon—at the end of the row. With a quick thanks to the volunteer who delivered my bike to me, I was headed out of the transition area and toward the bike exit. 

I took a bite of the Larabar in my hand and glanced up at the clock: 1:24:27. A full eight minutes slower than I’d been in Ironman Cozumel, never mind that I’d been swimming stronger and faster all season long. The Larabar became a brick in my mouth, morphing into this thing I could neither chew nor swallow. It didn’t occur to me at the time to spit it out. Probably because I was too busy shivering and trying to yank my arm warmers up while riding my bike up a slight, narrow incline out of Tempe Beach Park and onto the bike course.

Swim Stats: 
Time: 1:24:27  Pace: 2:11/100m
63rd/142 Division (Top 44%)
342/747 All women (Top 46%)
1588/2704 Overall (58th%) 

Up Next: IMAZ Part Four: The Bike

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

IMAZ Part Two: Countdown to Race Day

If you missed Part One of the IMAZ Race Recap: The Road to Tempe, check it out Here

IMAZ Part Two: Countdown to Race Day

Thursday, November 14
3 More Days ‘til Race Day

If touching down in Tempe was the first giant step toward race day, then Race Expo was the second one.

Ironman Cozumel Expo November 2011
Unlike Ironman Cozumel’s Expo, which had been indoors, the IMAZ Expo was a sprawling, outdoor festival at Tempe Beach Park (TBP).

Ironman Arizona Expo November 2013

We took a shuttle from our hotel to TBP and went directly to the Big Top—a huge, white tent designated for check-in, packet pick up, waiver signing, and swag collecting. Most awesome bit of swag was the Ironman backpack.  Love!!

Next stop was the merchandise tent, where Ironman everything (minus “Finisher” apparel) could be purchased. With the exception of the itty bitty XS clothes on the sale rack, prices were steep; but that didn’t put a dent in the buying frenzy going on inside that tent. I was content with my new backpack and the Finisher shirt I knew I'd be getting in just a few days J

We wandered through the venue, which featured every type of vendor you can imagine, but the only jeweler on site did not have the Ironman necklace I’ve been eyeing.

But the free samples made up for it. On the days we went to TBP, lunch was a non-issue. We simply ate our way through the Expo until we’d had our fill of protein shakes, fruit smoothies, Bonk Breakers and, best of all, full-size Chobani Yogurt samples. My favorite was the Almond Coco Loco:

When we could eat no more, we collected our bikes from Tri Bike Transport and rode back to our hotel to ditch our Expo goodies and change into cycling gear.

When I signed up for IMAZ, I was thinking mostly of the favorable climate, the flat terrain and late fall timing, and less about the marketing tagline that read, “This popular Southwestern race stands out as the most urban full-distance race in North America.”
Most urban. Hmmm. Not something that would have been a selling point for a non-city girl like me. I like my semi-country living and wide open spaces. But the urban aspect couldn’t have been more apparent as Tri Dad and I, and our friend, Erik, set out for a 1-hour taper ride along the race course.

Since Tempe is a college town, home to Arizona State University—which boasts an enrollment of more than 70,000 students—there was a bike lane available for the first mile or so. After that, it was us against three lanes of traffic. Thankfully, most motorists seemed to be cyclist-friendly, accustomed to the multitude of cyclists on campus and around town.

We weaved our way through town and out toward Arizona State Route 87, also known as the Beeline Highway. As we rode, a persistent thought took center stage in my mind--They must be doing a lot of construction here—triggered by the constant sight of dirt, rock and rubble in my periphery. Then it dawned on me: That’s just how it looks here. I’d forgotten how brown and barren it is in Arizona. Duh, it’s the desert. Where were all the cacti and mountains I saw in pictures of this race? 

These would come later. But the pre-race training ride left me unimpressed with the bike course and I was ready to head back to the hotel for a shower and some R&R before dinner with our friends Erik & Marcia at the Four Peaks Brewing Company.

The food wasn’t great (should have gone with the veggie burger instead of the pasta) but I definitely enjoyed the beer sampler I shared with Tri Dad, even though it’s not our practice to drink alcohol during training and especially not with a big race looming. But we still had three days to go so I gave myself a pass and wrote it off as carb-loading.

Friday, November 15
Two more days . . .

On Friday it was back to TBP for a mandatory pre-race meeting and a short, 15-minute taper run along the river. Then, back at the hotel, we put our feet up and ordered an in-room movie: Admissions with Tina Fey. (The hotel wanted $17.99 for new releases, like We’re the Millers, so we opted for an older, economy flick. Options were limited.)

Friday night was the Pre-Race Athlete Carb Loading Dinner at Tempe Beach Park. The event was outside, under the stars, beside the river and next to the stunning Tempe Center for the Arts building, so the location was great but the weather was unexpectedly chilly and breezy.

Tempe Center for the Arts

Tri Dad & I heading to the carb-loading dinner

In Cozumel, the carb dinner, albeit a bit unorganized and plagued by technical difficulties, was a total blast. A pep rally of sorts, a celebration that we’d made it this far, that got everyone totally pumped and excited for the race. 

By comparison, the IMAZ carb dinner was a total dud. Instead of focusing on and involving the majority of athletes, special interests groups took center stage and the entire event came across as a boring fundraising/political benefit dinner. And the food was bland, as expected. (The Chobani Yogurt was much better!). So, I must say, the IMAZ carb dinner was a bit of a letdown.

Saturday, November 16th

Tri Dad, Erik & Me at the practice swim
Saturday morning we made our fourth trek to TBP for the practice swim. And it was cold. We gathered near the lake under partly cloudy skies, the cool breeze and air in the low 60s raising goose bumps on my skin, to pour ourselves into our neoprene and plunge into the 62-degree water. Did I mention it was cold? Breathtakingly so. I swam a short out and back, probably about 20 mins, and climbed the metal stairs from the water, shaking uncontrollably. In the changing tent, I fumbled into dry clothes, thankful I’d brought a hoodie for the extra layer of warmth and to have something to cover my wet hair with.

We wandered through the Expo again. Shivering, I searched in vain for a pair of neoprene arm warmers which, apparently, don’t exist. I knew then I was a fool for going into this race with a sleeveless wetsuit. But more free Chobani Yogurt and Bonk Breakers made me feel better. (Coconut Cashew, Espresso Chip, Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip and Blueberry Oat were my favorites.) :)

Back at the hotel we spent the afternoon packing and organizing our race gear and nutrition into five separate bags: Swim to Bike, Bike to Run, Bike Special Needs, Run Special Needs, and Morning Clothes.

On our fifth and final pre-race trip to TBP, we racked our bikes and relinquished our gear bags, which were lined up numerically in the transition area. 

Then there was nothing left to do but rest, eat, and try to relax.

Tri Dad & I had a low key pasta dinner at our hotel and watched Comedy Central to take our mind off the race. The alarm clock was set for 3:30 AM. It was Race Day Eve. The moment we’d been waiting for and working so hard for was just hours away . . .

Next Up: IMAZ Part 3: The Swim 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

IMAZ Part One: The Road to Tempe

Sometime in the months after Ironman Cozumel, the idea to do another Ironman was born. 

I'd always thought Ironman Cozumel would be a "one and done" kind of thing. But as I've written before, Ironman is a lot like childbirth; while you're in the throes of agony, living in fear of what lies ahead, not sure if you're up for the challenge, you swear you will never do it again. 

But then, afterward, you're all aglow, this precious gift in your hands, this amazing sense of accomplishment in your heart, and you think: What pain? What agony? It really wasn't so bad. I could probably do this again . . .  

And then something else takes hold, moving you along from simply thinking I could probably do this again to I could probably do this better; I want to do this again. I am up for the challenge! I need to prove to myself that the first time wasn't a fluke, that it wasn't beginner's luck that I made it through 140.6 miles. And that horrific marathon split? I know I can do better then that next time . . .  

And with those two words--next time--your fate has been sealed. 

So on November 19th, 2012, I sat poised at my computer, fingers at the ready, watching the clock tick down to 12 noon--and it was on! Fingers flying over the keyboard, sighing with relief--yes, relief!--when I made it "in" to the site and was officially registered for a race that filled to capacity in 40 seconds. Literally thousands of people plunking down a huge chunk of change for the privilege of five months of grueling training followed by a single day of swimming, biking, running; sweating, pushing, suffering (sounds like childbirth, right?) through and over 140.6 miles of water, asphalt and concrete.  

And then I didn't really think about it again until spring. Though I kept up with a basic and minimal fitness regimen over the winter, my training for the season didn't start until March when I began preparing for my first race of the season . . . a local sprint triathlon to benefit the melanoma foundation. The day after the race, on Monday, June 17th 2013, training for Ironman Arizona officially began.  

Over the next 22 weeks I would log:

105,426 yards swimming
2056.77 miles cycling
306.21 miles running

A typical training week consisted of 9-13 workouts over 6 days, with one day of rest. Other than taking care of my family and attending to the daily requirements of my job as a freelance writer and yoga instructor, my life revolved around Ironman training. There were no happy hours, wine tastings or leisurely weekends, and in the thick of it all, as training intensified from the Build Phase to Peak Phase, I begged friends and family for forgiveness--for my total lack of being there, for my singularly focused and selfish pursuit; because, yes, training for an Ironman does require a certain degree of selfishness--and their promises to remind me how awful it all was and to schedule an intervention if I ever got the crazy idea to do it again! 

Overall, I had a great season, standing podium in 3/4 races and twice qualifying for the 2014 USAT Age Group National Championship in Milwaukee, WI

SC Sprint Triathlon
1st in Division
2nd Overall Female (out of 101)

Iron Girl Sprint Triathlon
6th/302 in Division
Top 2%: USAT National Qualifier

North East Olympic Distance Triathlon
2nd in Division
USAT National Qualifier

ChesapeakMan Skipjack (75.2-miles)
2nd in Division
11th Overall Female (out of 52)
41st Overall (out of 132)

Then, in September, with about 6 weeks left to go until IMAZ, the wheels came off. My left hip and hip flexor area had been tight for a few weeks, making it tough to stand and elongate the hip after sitting. So, I decided to try a foam roller to stretch and loosen the left hip and IT Band. Big. Mistake. I'm not sure exactly what I did--perhaps tore or ruptured some muscle fibers?--but as I moved the foam roller under my hip, I felt excruciating pain. The muscle I injured—the Tensor Fasciae Latae (TFL) was all new to me--Ironman training is nothing if not a full course in anatomy. The TFL is a tiny muscle, inferior to the IT Band, which is a long strip of fascia along and over the iliac crest. Apparently, pain in the TFL is common for certain types of athletes, such as distance runners.   

As a result of my TFL injury, I was unable to run for the rest of the training, the TFL like a rope being rubbed back and forth and frayed on the corner of a wall, as it moved across the iliac crest. Aqua jogging, or pool running, replaced actual running for the first 4 weeks, and I scheduled extra massage therapy and acupuncture appointments to help speed the healing process. My last scheduled long run was, instead, a long power walk of the same distance. Two weeks out, I managed a few short intervals on the track, but each effort to run caused a setback in my healing. It was the best I could do. 

Though it felt odd leaving my bike at a local shop to be picked up by Tri Bike Transport--like I was leaving one of my limbs--it was also a slight relief. I'd done it! I'd completed the training. The big day was almost here! 

                                                      TriBike Transport - Asheville, North Carolina
The packing and logistics for an Ironman--arranging childcare (Thanks Mom & Dad!), scheduling carpools (Thanks friends & neighbors!), creating and coordinating a schedule--seemed almost as bad as the actual training. I was a total stress ball. 

Finally, on the afternoon of Wednesday, November 13th, we flew to Tempe, Arizona. Tri Dad--a relatively big, tall guy--traded in a bunch of frequent flier miles to upgrade our tickets to first class so we could fly in comfort and he wouldn't be cramped into a tiny seat in coach, his knees pressed into the seat back in front of him. This was a luxury well-worth the trade-in, as not only did we have extra room, but we also had plenty of food. Pretty good food too, for airline food. And the flight attendant doled out bottle after bottle of water to us (not tiny plastic cups of it). We drank about 2 liters of water each during the flight, which was on time and went smoothly. We collected our bags without delay (tagged "priority" as they were, thanks to our first class seats) and were on a shuttle to our hotel within minutes--which is when we hit our first and only minor travel snag. 


Our hotel, Four Points by Sheraton Tempe, had experienced a leak and we were unable to check into our room. Tired and travel weary, we were relocated to another hotel for the night--The Country Inn & Suits, which was conveniently located across the street from The Dream Palace, and adult night club that generated a steady stream of traffic flocking to its purple neon decor. 

Luckily, our room at the Sheraton was ready by 10 AM next morning. We checked in, unpacked our bags, and caught a shuttle to Tempe Beach Park for the race Expo and packet pick up. 

The fun was about to begin . . . 

Next up: IMAZ Part 2: Countdown to the race.