Ironman Arizona was a fitting end to my time in competitive triathlon. It was a caricature really, of all my races to that point: an absolute disaster of a swim, a solid bike that held things together, and a great run. I had no concrete goals before the race; just to enjoy the experience of racing as a professional and go out with a good effort. Given the course, I assumed I would come away with a PR (which I did! by 26 seconds). Otherwise, though, this was more of a celebration than a competition for me – the cap to a long year and both my professional debut and finale.
Thank you to everyone who helped me pursue and achieve what I did in triathlon, whether tangibly or in spirit. It was a fun challenge and journey, but definitely not one without its difficulties. I’m looking forward to the next chapter, the next book really. But first, here’s the last chapter of this one (with maybe an epilogue to come).
Tempe, the Retirement Destination
Like so many others approaching the end of their career I chose Tempe as the location for my final act. It wasn’t the climate or attractive downtown that brought me, though, it was just the timing and logistics. It was 5 weeks after Kona, a good amount of time to recover without needing to extend maintenance of my triathlon fitness, and it was also the day before my birthday. So within one week I could celebrate retirement, my birthday, and Thanksgiving all in one go.
I also knew a number of people in the area, and owe a huge thanks to Jamil Coury for a place to stay, making this nearly a free trip after cashing in some of the airline miles I’ve built up as pittance for all the travel I’ve had to do for work. I first met Jamil when we paired up at the 2015 Barkley Marathons, and in a way I owe much of my following success there and in ultrarunning in general to him. I also got to enjoy the awesome pizza place he helped open up (Freak Brothers Pizza), adding it to his long list of other entrepreneurial endeavors (e.g. Mountain Outpost, Aravaipa Running, Run Steep Get High).
The Pro Experience
So what was life like as a professional athlete heading in to an event? Glamorous. Absolutely glamorous. From the pre-race dinner I enjoyed by myself at IHOP (with throngs of media crowded around, of course), to the pre-race pro athlete briefing in a hotel conference room, it was everything you could ever imagine.
Wait, I still have to race too?
Yup, race morning came around and it was time to get up and go. The same routine, practiced enough times now that it was nearly automatic. I did still have to get my bike to transition, but fortunately with that dedicated port-a-potty I had a bit more time than usual.
That is, until I misplaced my goggles. I ended up having to grab my backup pair and run over to the swim start, where I missed my introduction as part of the pro field. Oh well, probably best if no one knew who I was until I was far away from the water.
Water-proof dumpster fire
I had no illusion that I was going to keep up with the pro field on the swim. I fully expected to get left in the dust. I had also already let my swim fitness start slipping, going to the pool a couple times a week since Kona to try to maintain a bit of it. But I did hold out hope that maybe there would be one or two people I could stay with, or that it at least wouldn’t be a complete epic disaster.
Then we got in the water. It was cold. My chest immediately felt constricted, each breath feeling labored. The only time I had ever swum in water that cold was when a few of us were complete idiots in high school and swam across a river in Dayton, OH in early March after our events were over at a track meet. Yet here I was, a full-grown man who by all accounts should have grown out of that idiot phase by now, or at least the complete idiot phase, getting ready to celebrate my birthday and “retirement” by swimming 2.4 miles in frigid water. But, in that context I guess a lot of the things I do still fall into that category.
The pro field started before everyone else, so I at least didn’t have to worry about getting thrashed in an overcrowded washing machine of people. I positioned myself in the back, and we took off. I hung on to the back of the pack to the first turn buoy. “Alright, maybe this won’t be too horrible.” Then, we went around that turn buoy. “Oh !#$% where did everyone go?” Apparently they had hit one of those Mario Kart speed boost power-ups and I had completely missed it.
“That’s alright, you’re not here to win. Just stay on course and enjoy counting down your time left in the water.” Then I went around the next turn buoy, and started on the long stretch where we would be headed straight into the sunrise. Except the sun wasn’t up yet, and it was cloudy to boot. With my tinted goggles on (one lens now filled with water), I couldn’t see anything. Not the next buoy, not the pack of swimmers now far in front of me. I had to completely stop, pull my goggles up, and get a bearing on the next buoy. For the first quarter of the swim I had to keep stopping to be sure I wasn’t swimming in completely the wrong direction.
It wasn’t long until the female pros passed me. Then the lead male amateurs. Then the lead female amateurs. At first, when a pack went by I kept thinking “alright here’s your chance! Latch onto the back and stay with them.” But I couldn’t. I gradually slipped into a spiral “well, they caught me so they must be faster than me. Don’t even bother, just move to the outside and get out of the way of people who can swim and have something to race for here.” Of course at some point during the race that was no longer true of the people passing me, but no matter your physical capability you can only go as fast as your mind thinks you can.
So I moved to the outside, continuing to swim on my own without any benefit of a pack to draft with or help with following the course. I tried to do the math a couple of times when new groups passed me and thought “wow if they’re catching up to me I must be further along than I thought!” Nope, no I was just going that slow.
Then about half-way into it my left calf and right hand cramped up. I don’t really get cramps, but again I think not being prepared for or accustomed to the cold water was a huge factor there. For the remainder of the race I crept along with what I can only describe as the swimming equivalent of a hobble: no kick on one side, no pull on the other, and hardly any breathing in the middle. But, it was alright I thought. “Just steady forward progress. I might lose a few minutes, but that’s fine here. Stay on course and don’t overdo it.”
Eventually I finally made it out of the water. I was done! Swimming was over! “Wow that was rough, though… I probably swam like a 1:07 or 1:08.” I pulled up my wetsuit sleeve and looked down at my watch. “1:17?!? Wait, what? How… how is that even possible?”
I’m used to being behind coming out of the water, but this was my worst time ever by 10 minutes. That’s like the equivalent of running 8 minute miles instead of 6 minute miles. The 2nd slowest pro was 14 minutes ahead of me. I was not only DFL, I was DFL with a time gap of nearly 25%. I was in the water for over 50% longer than the leaders (and about 15% longer than I’ve ever been in it myself). “Well… thanks swimming. You just had to get one last shot to the gut in didn’t you?”
I ran along to transition, planning and rationalizing my next move. I had come in with no concrete goals, so I decided that was the plan I would stick with: put in a solid effort, but don’t overdo it and have fun. I now had absolutely no hope whatsoever of sneaking onto the pro podium, so in a way it made things easier for me to just relax and enjoy the rest of the race.
Sonora’s last ride
When I ran into transition the pro athlete coordinator was standing in front of the bike rack. I excused myself to get around her to my bike, and she was visibly startled that there was a pro just now coming out of the water. She asked if it was cold, and encouraged me to get it back on the bike.
So I grabbed Sonora, and off we went. And for anyone curious, this is what I named my bike after: Sonora Pass. It was that thing that eluded me, that final piece of my many journeys through the Sierra Nevada that challenged me and exposed my weaknesses. When I got the bike two years ago it represented the pursuit of my remaining goals in triathlon.
Once I thawed out and the puffiness in my eye from the water-filled goggle lens went away, I felt pretty good on the bike. But my mental motivation was still lacking. I kept asking myself what I could aim for. Top 10? No, that’s probably not possible at this point and I’ve already done that anyway (at IM Mont-Tremblant). Sub 9? No, already done that too, and on much more difficult courses. Getting any sort of small PR here wouldn’t mean much to me anyway, and to be honest it doesn’t matter to me what anyone else thinks of my PR (which is exactly why they’re Personal Records – they’re for each of us to challenge ourselves regardless of what the time is relative to other people). There was no age group win to shoot for, no Kona slot to qualify for. I couldn’t come up with anything.
And I was just… tired. Not physically so much as mentally. I just wasn’t there. I went through my past two years in my head. 8 Ironmans, 5 half iron or longer, 9 ultras including Barkley and a couple of FKT runs… pretty much an “ultra” race effort of some type every month (not to mention the birth of twins). I just – I just wanted to eat ice cream and rest. And if I overdid it here it would just prolong the amount of time I needed to spend doing that before I could start preparing for my next really meaningful goal.
But I do enjoy time on my bike, so I got to it and laid down an effort I felt was strong but that I could hold consistently and mostly pain free. And outside of the long gradual climb with a brutal headwind that we had on the first lap, it was fun, and uneventful. I actually ended up turning in a pretty solid time. When I arrived back at transition no one was startled to see me.
I’m now just a runner
And that was it. When I hopped off the bike and took off my helmet my career as a competitive triathlete was essentially over. I now only had running in front of me. “Alright then, let’s run! And in the process maybe show some of those swimmers how it’s done on dry land.” 😉
I took off like an animal released from a cage, with a goofy smile on my face that I think was confusing to spectators more than anything. I finally started enjoying the beautiful Arizona fall weather, and with renewed energy started playing the “what should I do here?” game in my head again. I started doing the math and realized that I could theoretically still go sub 9. For the next few miles a debate went back and forth in my head.
“I might be able to do it, but it would probably hurt. I still don’t feel like hurting today. But maybe go for it and if it does start to hurt take it down a notch? No, of course it would hurt, what would the point of that be? I wonder if anyone has ever gone sub 9 after coming out of the water in 1:17? That would be a pretty fun thing to be able to say… slowest swim ever in a sub 9 Ironman. Haha alright let’s do this. It’ll be a fun challenge, and why not go out with a bit of a bang?”
At around mile 6 that idiot side of my brain won out again and I decided to go for it. I needed about a 2:54, which would require around a 6:40 pace. Ironically, it was almost the exact same time that I had needed at Kona to get onto the podium. I had much more motivation and better fitness at Kona, but my run fell apart after needing to put out too many surges in effort on the bike. I still thought I was capable of it, though, so I set down the pace and kept after it.
Mile after mile passed, and I just kept going. It was almost robotic – splits were right on time, effort seemed constant, and I was still having fun and cruising along. It wasn’t until the last few miles that things started to hurt, but by that time I knew I could do it. I pushed through it and kept a steady pace, coming in with a 2:53 marathon. It was good for yet another 8:58 (my 3rd one to the minute in 3 months!).
Retirement / birthday party
I relished that last stretch, and heading down the chute. It was finished. It was bittersweet for sure, but overall an extremely gratifying moment. I didn’t look at it in terms of what I’ll be missing. There are definitely plenty of things I will miss. Instead I framed it in terms of appreciation for what I have been able to experience in triathlon, and in anticipation of the new things I will now get to experience in its place.
I was also glad that I had decided to put in a strong effort on the run. It was slightly slower than my fastest IM marathon, but given the overall conditions I think definitely my best performance on the run (which pairs nicely with my worst ever swim). And I got that sub 9 too! (alright Guinness, do I get another entry in the record book?) 😛
There wasn’t an awards banquet I needed to go to. No qualifying slot to go claim. I was done. I was happy to learn that I had moved up from DFL to 18th pro (out of 32 including 7 DNFs), and I had the 4th fastest run (just a few minutes from 1st). But I was still half an hour outside of prize money, so I wouldn’t have gotten there even without a horrible swim. The pro field was really competitive at this race due to it having automatic Kona qualifying spots.
There wasn’t an actual party either, though. I grabbed some pizza with Jamil, and I got that ice cream and rest. And I’m still getting more of both (well, rest other than in my actual professional career). So Merry Christmas, and see y’all in the New Year!
One thing that has stayed about as consistent this year as my 8:58 finishing times is my nutrition. I started the bike with a bottle of Perpeteum, and followed that with gels and halves of bars. I carried a stroopwafel for about the first half of the run and kept nibbling on it (unlike Kona, it didn’t melt and fall apart in the process). I can’t remember exactly how many gels I had, but I was again somewhere in the 1200-1400 calorie range, with about 180 / hr on the bike and 120 / hr on the run.