Friday, June 4, 2010

St. George: The Set Up and The Swim

We left Albuquerque Wednesday around noon with the intention of spending the night in Las Vegas. Our plan was to have breakfast the next day in Las Vegas then drive the rest of the way to St. George by noon. Racer check-in was Thursday; this is what happens with you have a Saturday race that is a point-to-point and requires multiple transitions.

We later found out why they say “The best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry”

As we were driving between Winslow and Flagstaff, the freeway was shut down because of an extreme windstorm. Semis were being blown over, freeway signs were snapped, and there was zero visibility. We ended up spending the night in lovely Holbrook; Winslow didn’t have electricity, so we had to backtrack to Holbrook.
We woke up the next morning to find it was still just as windy. We threw everything in the car and scrambled to get on the road before they shut down the freeway again. Five miles past Winslow, the freeway was at a dead stop. I got out of the car and saw that there were cars and diesels as far as eye could see. After a nervous one-and-a-half hours of having the car parked on the freeway-turned-parking lot, traffic started moving again. We took off knowing full well the freeway could close at any moment…it was do or die!

Once we got to Flagstaff, the coast was clear and we headed north. Along the way we saw the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell, and Zions National Park. Along the way, I realized I wasn’t going to make check-in. I made a few phone calls and found out the race organizers were going to have an additional race check-in Friday morning from 8AM to 10AM.

We finally got into St. George, checked into our hotel, ate dinner and crashed.

Early the next morning, I went to the IronMan St. George race headquarters to check in. There were about 30 of us who were caught in the same storm; each of us had our own tale. There was also another line for athletes to pre-register for the 2011 IronMan St. George; there were only 10 people. That was alarming. All the other events I’ve been to, this line is usually hundreds deep.

As I made my way through race headquarters, there was a universal look of terror on the athletes’ faces. I wondered what I was missing. I overheard some conversations: “The water is 54 degrees”, “There’s too much climbing”, and “It’s windy”. Here’s a little secret: stay away from race headquarters! There’s a negative energy. Some people aren’t confident in their training. For others, it’s their first IronMan distance race. For whatever reason, they seem to congregate at race headquarters and talk doom-and-gloom. It’s not healthy. It’s, basically, a form of forfeit. It’s looking for an excuse to do poorly. I left as quickly as I could.

I went back to my hotel and readied my T1 bag, my T2 bag and my special needs bags. I only packed a bike special-needs bag for the occurrence of a freak winter storm. I got my bike ready too. I went with a friend to the lake to do a brief pre-race swim. We made our way to Sand Hollow Reservoir. St. George was Beautiful. As we arrived, there were a lot of other athletes there too trying the waters. I slipped on my wetsuit and neoprene cap and got in the water. It was so cold! When I put my head under water, my face was really sore. My breathing increased by an additional fifty percent. For a moment, I grew nervous thinking about race day morning. But, after about ten minutes, my face got used to the water (or went numb) and I was able to relax. Swimming was effortless and relaxing. The key was to get the face used to the cold and the wetsuit would do the rest. After the swim, I jumped on the bike and prerode the start of the course. It was strange riding the actual course; I’d trained on virtual reality Computrainer version of the course nearly 100 times. Now it was the real deal.

Afterwards, I dropped my bike off and my T1 bag. I memorized the water and walkways to visualize my water exit and transition on race day.

Next, we drove back to St. George proper and dropped off the T2 bag at the designated transition from bike-to-run location. In a point-to-point race, there are two different locations for T1 and T2. I’m not a big fan of point-to-point races because they make race set up very technical, and they’re usually not spectator friendly. A non-point-to-point race has T1 and T2 at the same location. IronMan Arizona is like this. When you go to drop off your transition stuff the day before the race, you only need to go to one place. You start the race at the same place you finish. Also, the non-point-to-point race provides lots of times your friends and family can see you during the day. When you family has sacrificed a lot for you to do an IronMan, it’s a bit of a let down if they only get to see you a couple of times during the day. IronMan Arizona is perfect in this sense. They can watch you during the majority of the swim, they see you three times on the bike, and multiple times on the run. If you wanted to watch the IronMan St. George swim, you had to catch a shuttle to the location (you couldn’t drive your own car to the location) early in the morning and wait to be shuttle back after all the swimmers were done. Sadly, this made it impossible for Tanya and the kids to watch the swim start.

After setting up T2, I came home and spent the rest of the day relaxing. The girls went and got pedicures. I watched a lot of TV and drank lots of fluids. I tried to spend as much of the day as possible off of my feet and out of the sun. After dinner, I took some Ibuprofen PM and passed out.

Race day morning the alarm went off at 4AM. I was still really groggy from the Ibuprofen PM. I freaked a bit realizing how hard I slept the night before the race. That never happens! I started my pre-race routine. I shaved and showered, got dressed, ate two peanut butter bagels and my mocha cappuccino protein shake, and took some Imodium. I spent a little bit of time stretching, gathered my things, and Tanya took me to the athletes drop off. Because the race was point-to-point and there was limited parking at the reservoir, athletes had to come to a main meeting spot in the city and get bussed to the reservoir. There must have been 50 school buses waiting. The line to get in a bus went quickly. It was still dark outside as we drove to the reservoir. I was worried I’d have to share my seat with someone freaking out. I got lucky and sat next to an older lady who has already done 20 Ironmans. She’s already qualified for Kona and was just doing this for fun. She wasn’t phased by all the rumors and worries; she’d seen it all already. Her confidence was reassuring.
When we got to the reservoir, I jumped in line to use the porta-potty. Talk about a slow line with lots of nervous energy. I blocked out everything I heard while I waited. Thirty minutes later I was able to use the porta-potty and go to the next task. I was able to get things set up at T1. I slipped on my wetsuit and walked over to the water start. I had a cold can of Redbull in my hand. I began to rub it on my face to begin the numbing sensation. It really helped. As I looked into the eyes of many of the athletes, there was a lot of fear. Some people looked as if there were just about to storm the beach of Normandy. While the pros started, my friend and I stretched. We weren’t allowed to get in the water until the pros left. Finally, we made our way into the water. There were so many of us. We were all starting at once. It dawned on me that starting area was a bit too narrow. I got in the water quickly and began putting my face in the water. It wasn’t bad. It only took a couple of minutes this time to feel relaxed. I looked back to see more-and-more athletes making their way into the water. Some were just standing on the beach not wanting to get in. I swam a few hundred yards to get my heart rate up. We were minutes away from the start. I could vaguely hear the announcer shouting. I made my way close to the front of the group. I relaxed and took in the moment. I was so happy. I couldn’t think of anywhere else in the world I wanted to be. I was so thankful to be there at the start line and feel healthy. I felt like I did everything I could have done to be prepared. I was confident I’d do well. I said a little prayer to myself and waited for the start.

Finally, the announcer started to count down. Then, with a loud gun shot, the race started. It was chaos with all those athletes starting at once. I swam over people; people swam over me. I was hitting and kicking people and people were doing the same to me. I started out doing the lifeguard swim with my head up, so I didn’t get my face kicked. This part of the race generally lasts a couple of minutes before there’s enough separation between you and the other swimmers, and you can start your earnest swim. However, the separation didn’t seem to happen. We were all over each other for what must have been 1000 meters. My neck started to get really sore from holding my head up out of the water. Finally, after turning two buoys, I was able to get enough room to swim. I was madly searching for someone I could draft off. I’d find someone, get on their hip, and begin drafting only to find they were too slow. So, I’m move forward to the next person. Still the same story though. Finally, after three-quarters of the swim ended, I found two people that kept an honest pace. We blew through lots of people who went too hard at the beginning and were now fading. On the final left hand turn, there was about 500 meters to the water exit. I decided to pick up the pace. I thought I’d ditched the two swimmers, but they were still on my feet. Every once in a while, they’d hit my feet. They day before, my wife and daughters got a pedicure, now I was getting mine. When I exited the water, I turned to see who the two other swimmers were….they were two girls: Figures!

In November 2008, I did IronMan Arizona and I swam a 1:07. My goal was to break the 1 hour. I spent a year-and-a-half swimming masters and averaging 12,000-15,000 yards a week. Over that time frame, my speed increased dramatically. My form was better. I moved up two lanes to a faster group. I really wanted to see the fruit of my efforts. When I got out of the water, my swim split was 1:07 again! Sure, I was better by a few seconds. I was livid. All those early mornings I got up for Masters and I still got the same time. Sure, it was a different course and the start was so tough. But, it seemed like a slap in the face to get the exact same time.

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