Wind is nature's snake. It's unpredictable, can lash out and strike at any moment, wreak incredible damage, poison body and mind, then meekly slither away like a faint breeze.
If that's the case, the wind on the first loop of the Ironman St. George bike course from Sandy Hollow Reservoir to and through Gunlock was a black mamba. Merciless. Sinister. Overwhelming. It was only something a Gamesmaker could have devised with a cackle from a remote location. I've experienced black mamba wind before, mainly at Ironman Arizona in 2010, but only in roughly 20-minute bursts. The constant 30-40 mph pounding we took on the bike after passing through the towns of Santa Clara and Ivins lasted more than an hour at a time before we received a brief respite -- climbing the daunting Veyo Wall.
I've never looked more forward to climbing a nearly mile long, category 4, 6% steady grade.
The windy conditions never broke me physically, but there were more than a few times battling the elements when I wanted to park my bike, find a hole in the red rocks on the side of the road and just curl up. Quitting wasn't an option, but it became far more of a fantasy than finishing the race. Later in the days following the race, I've heard that 170 Ironman tributes didn't make it to the run.
With that in mind, my seven-hour, 112-mile, 6,000-foot suffer-fest once again taught me that good things come to those who persevere. There were many times during the ride's first 66 miles when I wanted to stop. But then I wouldn't have been rewarded with a blast-furnace tailwind for the return trip into St. George. If the wind heading out of town was the snake, then during the loop back I became the charmer. As you'll see in my Strava data, I reached speeds approaching 50 mph! There was one point where I was keeping pace with a convertible BMW on the trafficked highway lane next to me. I was hunched in my aero position, staring back at three people sunning themselves in their luxury car. They waved. I sheepishly waved back quickly so as not to be blown completely off the road, unsure what else to do but laugh at the absurdity of this whole experience.
All I could think was, "The Gamesmaker Giveth, and the Gamesmaker Taketh Away."
Before that hissing tailwind, I was on pace for an eight-hour Ironman bike ride. My worst by nearly 1.5 hours. But thanks to becoming the charmer and not suffering from the snake bites, I soared into town on pace for my target goal of seven hours. Everything was back on track.
And then, I stopped being able to eat food.
I knew I swallowed a lot of water in the swim. But why had it taken 4.5 hours for that to become a potential problem? At the time, I figured it was the sweet and sticky Ironman Perform bottled drinks I was downing one after the other at each 15-mile aid station. I correctly anticipated that I may have stomach issues based on past Ironmans so I packed Pepto Bismal in my Bento Box on the bike. Consuming four tablets over the next three hours helped calm my gut, but it did nothing to spark my appetite. All I could manage were a steady stream of Salt Stick capsules, water, and the occasional Gu Roctane. At least I was hydrated, evidenced by twice being able to pee while remaining on the bike (sorry Santa Monica Mountain Cycles!). My stomach issues almost became a blessing because they distracted me from the nasty headwinds picking up again on the Gunlock portion of the second loop. Fortunately, I had company in the form of a 46-year-old triathlon coach from Boston, Richard. We talked for around 20 minutes. He said that he's been to Kona for five world championships, yet this Ironman was the hardest by far he's ever experienced. We encouraged each other, talked about triathlon, race strategy for the rest of the day, and leap frogged back and forth. Just knowing someone else -- someone very fast -- was suffering actually made me feel a little better in that I wasn't the only one. (That sounds terrible, I know.) My conditioning didn't suck. The snake was biting everyone equally. Of course, I didn't have the benefit of knowing just how many people were snake-bitten at that moment.
By the six-hour mark, my pace steeply dropped heading up the three main Gunlock-Veyo climbs, and my willpower drained. How could I possibly run a marathon still? The crosswinds following the Veyo Wall are the worst part of the bike loop. You can see the turn into town that will free you from the snake's grip, yet getting there seems almost impossible. The wind's grip was too constricting. Everything around me became a mirage. Shade. The smell of the Veyo Pies shop. The next rest stop. Meanwhile, the winds are whipping me to the point that I'm riding across the road's double yellow lines. If I was walking, I would have looked like Rocky Balboa in the 15th round of a fight. It wasn't walking. It wasn't pedaling. It was dragging and mashing. Willpower, not pedal power. Just. Pedal. A. Bit. More.
Finally, the snake loosened its choke hold. The shade briefly revealed itself, and so did the tailwind -- albeit much more mild than before. I'd actually have to work a bit climbing the two miles before the steep descent to St. George, but who cares? If I could rally and the winds cooperated, I knew I could reach the seven-hour mark. I was still on track. The day was not lost. I pounded forward, pedaling when many were coasting besides me. Seeing others crumble behind me -- people who had stormed ahead of me earlier -- fed my depleted confidence. Pacing was my power. Eventually I saw my Fortius buddy Matt about five to 10 minutes ahead of me going into the final two mile turnaround. We hadn't seen each other since connecting for about 15 minutes during the ferocious first loop. I thought if Matt, who is a dramatically faster cyclist than me, is only several minutes ahead then today was way worse for everyone than I imagined. Despair turned to pride and something else...hope.
My ride came to a gentle end, like a faint breeze after a tempest. The wind slowed down, and after a short but steep climb to Bluff Street I was giving my bike to a volunteer at T2. I didn't know it then, but my finishing time was 7:00:18. Seven hours flat. After all that worrying. After the battling. After the snake charming. I hit the lower end of what I expected to accomplish on the bike.
How I arrived to that time though...I never expected any of that.
I survived the water and the wind. I survived the heat and my own intestinal mutiny.
What would the Ironman Gamesmakers think of for the run?