Be careful what you wish for.
That thought first crossed my mind midway through the first loop on the Ironman St. George bike course, right after sand blasts smacked my face from 30-40 mph wind gusts. After the wind blew me literally from one side of the road to the other. After the myriad leg-biting rolling hills yet before any of the three "big" climbs near the tiny towns of Gunlock and Veyo.
I wanted to tackle one of the toughest Ironman courses in North America -- perhaps the world -- to see how I'd respond. I wanted to find my true physical and mental limits. Arizona and Coeur d'Alene tested me, but I was left hungry for more. Plus, those of you who have read my past posts know there's more to it than that. I never quite shook off the verbal assault laid upon me by Tri-asshole before my first Ironman in 2010. Upon telling Tri-asshole I was training for Ironman Arizona, all I got back was a biting stare and, "You could have picked a harder one."
I've been racing that guy in my mind ever since.
Midway through the second run loop this past Saturday at Ironman St. George, I finally passed him. Looked him in the eye, told him to screw himself, and kept right on running.
Based on the 20% did not finish rate and the slowest recorded winning pro Ironman times, Ironman St. George 2012 is now officially the hardest Ironman race on record. Yet statistically I had my best race even though it was also my slowest Ironman finish time; I ranked top 19% in my age group (47/240).
I have nothing left to prove to anybody, and most important, I have nothing left to prove to myself.
What follows is my tale of what I'll affectionately refer to as "The Ironman Games" -- for that's what it truly felt like at points when weather changed and worsened seemingly for no reason whatsoever. I'd love to meet the Head Gamesmaker who concocted Saturday's race.
Sandy Hollows Reservoir requires a 25-minute shuttle bus ride from the T2 and finisher's chute in downtown St. George. That's a long time to be cooped up with a bunch of nervous Ironman tributes. To tune them out, I blasted my headphones with my usual array of Rocky soundtrack hits and some new stuff too (Fun, Florence and the Machines, The Heavy). Between each song, I could hear two guys behind me talking about their split times, how they want to handle T1, what nutrition they'll eat, etc. I immediately put my phones back on to drown them out. First-timers, I thought. Then I laughed to myself how weird that comment was...it wasn't so long ago I was them. The tune that really got me jacked up and race-ready in the dark before dawn was Metallica's cover of Bob Seger's "Turn the Page." If you haven't listened to that song, I think you'll find the parallels between Seger's ode to constant travel on the road and the moments before an Ironman oddly similar.
Once our bus pulled up to the race site, I pulled off my phones, got body marked and tried to find a porto potty. I've learned they get filled (literally) the first. Everything else can wait. Unfortunately, many people had the same idea as me. Waiting for a toilet was like the tributes in Hunger Games plotting out what they were going to pluck from the Cornucopia. Frenzied tension.
To calm down pre-race after the restroom visit, I lounged in the changing tent again with my headphones on. The energy was palpable and draining. Frank Sinatra crooned me back to a mellow state. I guarantee I was the only guy at Ironman listening to Frankie before the race.
The sun came up, the glide came on, as did my wetsuit...and it was time to march with nearly 1,500 other people towards the water.
We had no idea what was waiting for us.
SWIM (AKA "The Tempest")
During the walk into the lake, I started bobbing my head and dancing to the music. I've learned to remember and savor every moment leading up to an Ironman as well as during it. One guy behind me pretended he was drawing a syringe from my arm and said, "Dude, I need some of your energy for today." That felt good to hear. If other people can feel my energy and draw strength from it, then it's going to be a good day.
My Fortius Racing buddies Matt and David joined me in the reservoir and we leisurely floated and treaded water for what felt far longer than 15 minutes even though it wasn't. My mind and body felt as tranquil as the water in that moment. Even the music that was supposed to excite us, even Mike Reilly shouting out if we were ready to be an Ironman didn't faze me. Honestly, I was laughing to myself "Been there, heard that." Had this gotten old for me already?
Then, the cannon boomed. Nearly 1,500 Ironman tributes blasted off, kicking, grabbing, gouging, rolling and knocking into each other. I swam with my head up and out for the first 100 or 200 yards, just to be safe. All you could see was white foam and bright green caps. My only initial drama came when someone grabbed around my waist and started to pull me downward. I put my arm around their waist, used my momentum to propel myself over their body and swam out of the way. All I could think the first 500 yards or so was to stay calm, find a lane, relax and not go out too hard like I did at Ironman Couer d'Alene. Mission accomplished. I settled into a fine groove, found feet to draft off thanks to super clear water, and cruised to the first turn buoy.
I was going to PR this swim by a longshot, I thought.
The Head Gamesmaker had other plans.
Upon making that turn and essentially heading back the way we came, it felt like a boat must have cruised across our swim line. The wake was just too high to be anything else. I was pushed several feet high and thrust back down again into the surf.
"What the fuck was that?!" I yelled to nobody in particular. Then, I looked up and all I could see were waves, mist, and hardly any other swimmers. This was not the same water I had just spent about 15 minutes in. This was far worse. It reminded me of the LA Triathlon race in 2010 where the lifeguard boat bobbed around like a toy in the ocean. Where we had to run 200 yards to the right of the entry point so the current would carry us vertically to the right turn buoy.
With that in mind, I reminded myself of two things: First, I've been here before. Second, my grandfather was with me. It was the seventh anniversary of his funeral. Nothing was going to happen on his watch. Keep swimming. Don't panic. Stay focused.
The next hour was more a battle of patience and will then it was an exercise in swimming technique. I'd swim down a swell, take three strokes, see when I was about to be pulverized by a wave, breast stroke up to the crest, seek some guidance on some buoy -- ANY buoy -- and swim towards that mark while trying not to swallow any more water. Rarely did I have anyone within 15 yards of me. I had never felt so alone in a swim, which is a terrible feeling when you think there are supposed to be 1,400-plus other swimmers in the water with you. But where are they??? I simply couldn't see them, and I could only see buoys every few minutes or so. My spirits sank as I realized this would be a very slow swim, and that my goal of an Ironman PR were blowing away in the horrendous breeze.
Things got worse before they got better. As I swam around the small island in the reservoir before the final turn towards shore, the current and chop were pushing me towards rocks. I could see beneath me the outline of the earth and rock -- I wasn't scared but I was definitely concerned I was about to scrape up my body pretty bad if I kept getting pushed left. I swam especially hard for at least 200 yards, head down, no sighting, just swimming towards where I thought the turn buoy should roughly be located. Until that point I took what the tempest was giving me, but it was time to fight back or suffer real painful consequences. I was around 20 yards from the turnaround buoy when I decided to abruptly turn left towards shore. I cleared the island and began to see green caps again. Relieved, I picked up my pace and felt the waves picking me up from the backside now. Then, it seemed like I was on a conveyor belt headed in the opposite direction. Aren't we supposed to be in a reservoir? This was serious current!
Finally, mercifully, I reached the boat landing. The wind was ripping and howling as banners looked like they were about to tear from their posts and fly away like magic carpets. My fellow swimmers and I didn't run onto the concrete and carpeting. We staggered. I was dazed. What just happened? Was that real? What time is it? The clock indicated I had been in the water one hour and 22 minutes. That's the longest single swim I've endured, three full minutes longer than my cramps-laden IM Coeur d'Alene swim last year. It was going to be a long, long day.
Then, I gazed into the bike racks at T1. Most of the bikes were still there! Did I actually have a good swim and just didn't know it?
I later found out that between 200 and 300 Ironman tributes were pulled from the water -- including an active duty Navy SEAL who missed the swim cutoff (he must've been from District 2). I've also heard rumors that the swim cutoff was extended 15 minutes due to not being able to find all the athletes and so many being blown off course. Moreover, according to my friend Colleen's race report, 57 out of 60 kayak rescuers needed rescuing themselves!
I was the little volleyball from Castaway, and yet unlike the movie, somehow, someway I miraculously made it through unscathed -- just dazed.
That was just the beginning of the day. I still had to get on the bike.