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

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