By Raymond Britt, IronArizona
Sometimes you just need to take a different approach to your racing. Sometimes it doesn’t need to be a big deal. Sometimes you’re not as ready as you’d like to be. Sometimes life gets in the way. Sometimes race day just shows up, you do, too, and you don’t know what to expect.
In recent years, I’ve quietly put pressure on myself to improve, to accomplish more, to get to higher levels. And I’ve done just that, and enjoyed the benefits. But, as I just learned competing in the April 9 Inaugural Ironman Arizona in Tempe, that urgency in recent years had robbed me of a little something, something that makes racing as much fun as it should be.
My family has vacationed almost annually in Scottsdale Arizona, just miles from Tempe, since 1973. I’ve always loved the area for its dry heat, its beauty and its simplicity. When Ironman North America announced this race, I signed up, despite the fact that it was nine days before my favorite race – the Boston Marathon – and despite the fact that it would require training through a Chicago winter, not an easy thing. It was easy to register with the race several months away. I’d worry about actually doing it later.
Soon enough, later was on its way. Next thing I knew, it was race day. I knew I was underprepared. Between January and race day, I had averaged about 6.5 hours per week training. Limited time in the pool. Only one 56 mile indoor bike ride, a few of 25 or more miles, then many 60 to 75 minute bike rides . . . all indoors on the CompuTrainer with PowerCranks. The usual number of winter runs, but little speed work . . . it just felt too cold outside
I didn’t feel out of shape. In fact, the shorter workouts had yielded signs of increased power and speed, so I felt confident in that regard. But still, I was less ready for an Ironman than I had been in years.
Tired of feeling the self-imposed pressure to do better, be better, finish better, I forced myself to be honest. It would be futile to impose any stress on myself, so why not take the opposite approach for Ironman Arizona? Why not just go out there, and literally treat it as a long training day?
As soon as I gave myself permission to view it that way, I immediately relaxed and began looking forward to the race. I didn’t know this attitude change would help make Ironman Arizona 2005 one of my most enjoyable races in years, if not one of my best ones.
Race Day – April 9, 2005
Athletes began streaming into the Tempe Town Lake Beachfront park at 5am, beginning the last-minute bike tinkering we all know so well. Air in the tires, nutrition on the bike, bottles filled, everything just right.
I was doing the same thing, tinkering away, but I had a very different attitude than in the recent past. Instead of deeply concentrating on race scenarios, target splits, segment-by-segment objectives, I let all that slide. The day would bring what it would bring. And what a nice place to have a day like this, I thought – beautiful Arizona of all places.
The swim took place in cold, murky Tempe Town Lake. How cold? About 63 – 65 degrees. How murky? So murky you cold not see your hand reaching out in front of you. At least that’s what I had been told. I had chosen to skip the morning practice swim the day before the race, opting instead to take it easy at the hotel.
So at 6:55am, five minutes before the cannon fired, I jumped into the water to find out for myself. Yes, it was cold, and yes, it was murky. But there was one sunny side, literally. The swim course ran west to east and back, in a single loop, and the sun, rising from the east, entered the water, brightening things up. I knew that if I could not see the buoys well, all I had to do was follow the sun. That seemed a nice thought: to follow the sun that I had seen rising over 32 years of family vacations in Arizona.
The Ironman Arizona swim was not unlike others – a little chaotic, filled with contact in the first 10 minutes, and then ultimately, a long haul on what feels like a water treadmill until it’s over. There were a couple of landmarks to let you know where you were on the course, bridges near the start, middle and also end of the course. If you could see the bridge, you knew you were close.
And soon it was over. Coming to the stairs that led us out of the water, I had no idea what to expect on the clock. While I had insisted that I would not worry, regardless of time, it had felt slow enough in the water to threaten the 1:20 barrier. I was surprised to see 1:16 on the clock as I ran over the timing mat. Several minutes slower than my better times, but a time I deserved give so few sessions in the water. I decided the day was off to a good start.
Preparing for the Bike
Bike training in preparation for Ironman Arizona in the Chicago winter is not an easy thing. I’m sure there are a few hearty triathletes from the area who dutifully suited up in cold weather gear and rode their bikes outdoors — short, interval and long rides — undeterred by our traditionally cold, windy, snowy and blustery winters. I was not among them. Not even close.
My first outdoor ride since Kona in October 2004 took place exactly seven days before Ironman Arizona. It lasted 40 minutes. The next day, I pushed it a bit longer – 70 minutes. Then I packed the bike for Arizona. So 110 minutes of outdoor riding prior to the race.
However, I did spend many late winter nights on my CompuTrainer, outfitted with PowerCranks, riding portions of the initially mapped Ironman Arizona course. Taking a page out of my years-earlier winter training regimen when I had prepared for Ironman New Zealand, I rode the published Ironman Arizona course indoors often to get a feeling of the terrain.
The good news was that I was able to ride the CompuTrainer with PowerCranks longer and stronger than in the previous winter. For me, this was up to 90 minutes. I was pleased with this progress. Once I put my fixed crank Softride Rocket on CompuTrainer and rode the first loop of the Arizona course, 56 miles. That was my longest ride all winter.
So I decided what I might lack in hours and distance on the bike, I might make up for in stronger pedaling and high familiarity with the course. I was right on one of those counts.
Last-Minute Bike Course Changes
The folks at Ironman North America have race preparation and planning down to a science. They come into a new town, pull out the playbook of the best practices from other races, from volunteer recruitment to merchandising to course management, and they make it work great. But they were in for a surprise in Arizona. I guess there has to be a least one with each new race.
The surprise in Arizona, as I understand it, was that the community northeast of Tempe, which would host much of the bike course heading toward beautiful McDowell Mountains, changed its mind. Only weeks before the race. There was a major street crossing that this community felt must not be closed, for fear of losing Saturday commercial revenue. The IMNA team needed to scramble for a solution, fast.
What they came up with was a three-loop course consisting of a technical myriad of twists, turns, outs and backs near downtown Tempe, designed to chew up six or seven miles, before sending riders out to the northeast to the very edge of property that organizers were allowed to approach.
In the days before the event, officials publicly warned that the bike course was a disappointment and held the potential for many problems from drafting to accidents. They pleaded with riders for patience and restraint.
The old me would have been feeling tense about these last minute changes, fretting a little about how I might get or lose an edge on this or that turn, wondering where I might snatch a slight advantage. This time, I knew none of those specifics about the course, and didn’t care.
So with all this background – having prepared to ride a course that didn’t materialize, and with all the warnings – I exited transition with my eyes wide open. I would just follow the people in front of me, until I passed them, then I’d look ahead for others and go after them.
In those first few zig-zagging miles in Tempe, it seemed all riders were getting their bearings. There were a lot of riders, and not a lot of room to maneuver. Everyone was wary of drafting, far more in this race than I’ve witnessed in a long time. Things didn’t begin to open up until we headed out of town.
The Windy City?
Know what it’s like to keep an eye on the weather forecast in the days before and Ironman race, zeroing in on race day? Know what it’s like to see several days of sunshine on the forecast, except for race day, where instead of a sun, the forecasters put the icon for ‘WINDY’ in its place? The race day forecast was for 25-30 mph winds from the west. Heading out to the northeast with that wind at our back was quite pleasant, pushing us to speeds of 28 mph without trying. How nice it would be to make the turnaround and have that wind die down, I thought.
No such luck. After the turnaround those breezy speeds immediately reversed, and we knew why we had been going so effortlessly fast. Time to face the wind. We were reduced to a relative crawl, though, interestingly, no one was grumbling. This was a very polite group of athletes I was riding with. We pushed back to town, collectively thankful, I think, in the knowledge that we’d deal with the wind for not too long before being pushed by it on the way back.
Heading into lap two, I was feeling quite good, and was just trying to spin at a level that would allow me to finish the bike with something left for the marathon. Passing the 55 mile marker halfway through the second loop, I was aware that this was about to become my longest ride in six months. I felt just fine, and I made the turn back into the wind, heading for Tempe.
Mile 70 on the bike has traditionally been a moment of truth for me, a time when I hit a rough patch, which I can usually get through. This time, passing mile 70 near downtown Tempe, I felt relatively fine. No problem. Bring on the rest of the course.
Heading out of town for the final lap, I tried to figure out what I had done differently on this course to not struggle through the 70 mile spot. I quickly decided it was because I didn’t hammer from the start as I usually seem to do. I usually like to start powerfully and try to hold it as long as possible.
This time, I had just sought to find a gentle balance, and probably held back a bit. Also, in keeping with my pre-race deal with myself, I was not concentrating on speed or time goals at all. I did glance at my speedometer, but I wasn’t really sure what my overall bike split would be, Nor was I going to pressure myself to meet or beat a goal. I would finish when I finished, and that would be it.
The moment that made me laugh out loud occurred while returning to town the last time. The wind remained unrelenting, but this time it was looking for allies. It began hurling dust at us, and in a final salute to the Old West, rolling tumbleweeds came bounding down the highway in our direction. You almost expected to see the Gunfight at OK Corral, with the theme for High Noon playing in the background.
My goodness, what a difference that relaxed attitude was. I finished the bike leg in less than five and a half hours, never once having a struggling moment out there. It had actually been kind of fun. I felt good. This was different, and I liked it.
To the credit of IMNA and the racers, everyone did a nice job with a makeshift bike course. Few of the concerns seemed to materialize, with the exception of a few people, pros included, missing the last 7 miles.
If I was a little unsure about what the bike course had to offer, I was clueless about the run course. I had looked at the layout on course maps, but I had not tried to scout the course before the race. I would see it for the first time as I ran it.
I have to say, with the exception of a few too many 180 degree turns thrown in there, this was one of the more enjoyable Ironman run courses I’ve been on. While the first two miles were largely on predictable asphalt roadways, the course then steered along the waterfront of Tempe Town Lake before crossing a bridge and heading into the type of terrain Real Arizona Runners run – trails, a few rocky sections, and desert cacti and other wildlife along a quiet canal that was just on the other side of the Phoenix Zoo as the course headed through the Papago Park area.
The course was often rarely straight, so you didn’t know what might be around the corner. It invited curiosity, if you weren’t aching too much. It also invited moments when you look around at the mountains, the desert life, and say to yourself: how cool is this?
As a friend said after the race, this was the first Ironman course where, if one weren’t too out of their mind, they might even look forward to returning to the second loop. I agreed. I felt reasonably fine heading into that second lap, confident I would finish in a time that I would be pleased with.
But I refused to look at my watch. I stayed true to what had gotten me to that point all day – moving steadily and under control, unpressured. It seemed to be working. As I made the final turn in Papago Park, and headed toward the final four miles to the finish, I began to smile inside, acknowledging that despite concerns about limited winter training, I was going to finish, and it was going to be fun.
With less than one mile to go, I finally allowed myself to do something I hadn’t done all day: look at my watch. It said 5:30 pm – ten and a half hours. I was pleased with that, but then all of a sudden, I was exhausted, spent. The next six minutes were measurably harder. Maybe I shouldn’t have looked, but it didn’t matter. Because six minutes later, it was over.
I finished 121st overall, 17th M40-44, a few minutes out of contention for Kona. I was not disappointed, not bothered. Kona might have been a goal months ago, and it may be in the future, but it was not the goal on this day. I just wanted to do go out there, give it my best from end to end, and I did. That was plenty of satisfaction.
On quick reflection just after finishing, I couldn’t remember the last time I had enjoyed an Ironman race as much. It feels strange to use the word ‘enjoy’ in the context of an event that covers 140.6 miles, but in Tempe Arizona, this time it was true.
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