Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Ironman St. George Race Report

Ironman St. George Race Report

May 7, 2011 -- St. George, UT         

In only its first year, Ironman St. George was named the hardest Ironman in the world by a reputable triathlon publication.  That may be debatable depending on the weather conditions.  But not by me.  Not after what I just experienced.  Not in 93 degree heat.

While in 2010 the water temperature at the Sand Hollow Reservoir was Arctic, this year we lucked out.  The reservoir was a balmy 58 degrees -- give or take a couple.

But to enjoy a swim in such tropical waters, one must find water unoccupied by other humans.  I didn't.

From "Go!", I angled my way to the inside of the course where I was met with 20 minutes of violence.  These people didn't want me there and though I wanted to leave them, I couldn't find my way out.

Left with no choice, I fought back, throwing random elbows and kicks at the evil rubber people trying to use me as a floatation device.  And though I was serving up the fists-of-justice to anyone in reach, being in an underwater slap fight is no way to swim fast. 

I exited the lake in a slow 1:10.

Figuring correctly that I had some ground to make up, I set off on the bike with controlled vengeance.  And mostly, I won round two, riding a strong 5:28 bike split and climbing from 47th out of the water to 13th off the bike. 

That's not to say it was an uneventful ride, however. 

At mile 25, I had a repeat of the annoyance that caused my crash in Canada -- the sticky back of the knee problem, caused by a leaky hydration system that splattered sugary liquid onto my leg.

Having not enjoyed the high-speed impact with the street the last time I showered myself with bottled water to fix this reoccurring issue, it seemed wise to devise a new solution.

Since I had to pee anyway, it was a surprisingly simple matter to divert the flow down the back of the right leg.  We all have our special talents, I say.  (*Do not attempt this at home.  Professional on a closed course).

Sadly, urine, is not necessarily not-sticky.  At least mine wasn't.  Reluctantly, I reached back and rubbed the sticky mess away with my right hand, which hand instantly became useless for eating the red licorice in my special needs bag. 

I rode on with the problem only half-solved, but as bad solutions go, at least I hadn't crashed my bike. 

And any negative thoughts I might have had were forgotten as I passed the 40-mile mark.  I hadn't been passed by anyone in over an hour, but seemingly out of nowhere, I heard a voice.  And the voice had a German accent.

"I am thinking that perhaps I should practice swimming again."

Looking left, my buddy Dret was pulling alongside. 

Holy mackerel, how slow must he have swum for it to take him 40 miles to catch up with me?  This guy can bike like no one I've ever known.  All of a sudden I started to feel better about my slow swim and it occurred to me that perhaps the swim had just been slow for everyone. 

I felt bad for Dret, but knowing that we had all swum slowly gave me hope that the race was not yet over for any of us. 

Dret said, "I think I'll ride with you for a while, Rainbow Dolphin.  I've been riding hard trying to catch up and I think I maybe should take it easy for a bit." 

Dret had been calling me Rainbow Dolphin since Wednesday before the race.  He bought me a neon green hat for my birthday to match my neon compression socks and sunglasses and decided that I looked like a Rainbow Dolphin -- whatever that is.  And as long as he was distracting me from the grind of an Ironman bike leg, my tall German friend could call me anything he liked.

But just because I was glad to see Dret, didn't mean it would have been smart to ride with him.  The uber-biker's idea of resting is still a few watts faster than I wanted to push, and so I encouraged him to ride away, which he reluctantly did after a couple looks back over his shoulder to see if I was following.

Not chasing Dret was almost certainly the smartest decision I had made to that point in the race.  Of course, the other involved peeing on myself, so it wasn't a particularly high standard.

Nevertheless, I momentarily regretted not going with Dret because having someone to chat with made the time go quicker. 

Soon however, the first of several steep climbs appeared and reminded me why I didn't spend the energy to ride with Dret.  We would be climbing this nasty series of hills twice today.

Still, I had trained hard for this bike ride and keeping to my planned wattage made the next 40 miles uneventful and even beautiful.  Sheer clay colored cliffs, waterfalls and a winding stream provided a beautiful backdrop for the ride.  And then the scenery gave way to a 10-mile descent at 40 to 50 miles per hour that returned us to the hard work of the second lap.

Beginning at mile 70, I began lapping the back-of-the-pack athletes, now at mile 30 of their own rides.  As usual, I felt inspired by them, knowing how long these athletes would be out on the course.

That's when the carnage began.

At mile 80, my heart dropped at the scene before me.  As the series of steep hills began to appear for the second time, I saw that nearly all of the athletes who were still on their first lap had dismounted and were pushing their bikes up the first hill. 

And the second hill.  And the third.  And the fourth. 

And this was their first lap. 

Any time you're pushing your bike in an Ironman, things could be better.  But to do it with 70 miles left on the bike leg, knowing you're going to be pushing your bike up these same hills again in three hours is a triathlon horror movie. 

At least that's what I was thinking as I was ripping the handle bars off my own bike trying to yank myself to the top of each of the hills littered with marching bike-pushers.

Remarkably, I finished the bike leg in good shape and fairly fast, averaging 185 watts.  As I said, I was now in 13th place in the age group with a long run left to make up ground.

Coming into transition, I chided myself that I could have ridden faster.

But the first four miles of the marathon cured me of that mental illness. 

My legs felt fine initially, but the first 4 miles of the run are no joke.  Imagine running on a Stairmaster in a dry sauna with someone shooting sand in your face with a high speed fan and you have some concept of the marathon I was about to run. 

Like I said, I quickly forgot about whether I should have biked harder.  Instead, I began to wonder how long a human being could run on the surface of the sun even with the world's nicest volunteers handing you coke, water, sports drink, ice, and cold sponges every half mile.

I was running pretty well, holding about an 8:30 pace to the turn-around at mile 6.5.  Along the way, I spotted Dret and our buddy Tom Trauger running about a minute apart.  I shouted some encouragement and we waved to each other. 

Tom said "I flatted", looking a little bummed.  But he kept running hard all the same. 

As the heat began taking its toll, it became obvious that being a volunteer might be just as challenging as running the course.  The volunteers had nowhere to hide from the sun.  And while the athletes were all headed to a destination where someone might hand us a bottle of water and a slice of pizza, the volunteers weren't going anywhere for a long time. 

But the volunteers never wavered.  Even when the wind ripped a massive tent structure from its foundations at mile 3/10/16/23 (depending on where you were on the course) and flung it 50 yards down the road, the volunteers just scrambled to salvage what they could and chased down runners who they missed in the fray.  If anything the ranks of the volunteers grew as it got hotter.

At mile 12.5, I saw Dret running towards me, starting his second lap.

"Looking strong!" I shouted.

"Fly Rainbow Dolphin, fly!" He cheered.  I was so tired, it was almost beginning to make sense.

Our friend Rachel Main, was cheering near the turn-around and shouted "You look great!" as I finished my first 13 miles in about 1:50, approximately 12 minutes behind Dret and 10 minutes behind Tom Trauger who was still fighting to make up ground. 

I was ahead of schedule and seemed to actually be closing the gap on my pals, which made me feel good for about 20 seconds.  Then I rounded the out-and-back and began the 4 mile trek up the hill to start the second lap. 

Remarkably, I hated the hill even more the second time.

As I looked ahead, the scene now had more in common with the Bataan Death March than an athletic event.  I fought the urge to slow down or to walk, except when someone offered me a coke.

Cresting the hill at mile 17, just after I kissed Laura for the 3rd time during the race (costing me a sub 4 hour marathon by 9 seconds), just when I started to feel better, I was confronted with the terrible sight of our friend, Meredith Kessler, laying unconscious on the other side of the road.  She had been in second place among the pro women with 3 miles left in the race.  But Ironman St. George had no mercy even for the strong.

I briefly thought of crossing the road to help, but I could barely move in a straight line myself and Meredith was already surrounded by people more useful than a delirious man with a doctorate in something other than medicine.

I continued to jog in the direction that would most quickly get me off this course, briefly yelling encouragement to Jerry Nista, who was a lap back, but soldiering on, and then a few minutes later to Dret and Tom for the final time. 

I definitely wasn't gaining on either.

Between miles 21 and the finish line, just in case I was still somewhere in contention for a Kona qualifying spot, I engaged in a sadistic slow-motion battle with 6 guys in my age group, all of whom had somehow wound up within 2 minutes of me this late in the race. 

Just as I had expected, the reputation of this race had lured a deep, competitive field.  Only the hard-core athletes could possibly think that what we were doing was a good idea.

A guy named Paulo and I took turns passing each other at the aid stations.  He would hydrate and walk, while I would shuffle on by.  Then he would catch me before the next station and we would do it all over again.

As Paulo and I were engaged in this seesaw battle for an unknown finishing position, a guy named Brett ran by both of us just before mile 23.  Paulo and I tried vainly to hang on to his heels. 

Running down the steep hill at mile 23, just beyond the spot where Meredith had fallen about an hour ago, I put on a small burst and opened a gap on Paulo. But he just wouldn't die.  He caught me again at mile 24.

On the bright side, trying to chase down Brett and Paulo had the unintended effect of dropping the other 3 guys in our age group, one of whom, I later learned, had finished fourth at this race in 2010.

But it was a hollow semi-victory.  In the end, Ironman St. George spat me out at the finish line like a wad of chewed gum.  I finished in 17th place in the age group, and 119th out of 1600 entrants.  Like in Cozumel, I finished miles faster than the previous year's Kona qualifying times only to miss the new mark by about 15 minutes. 

Staggering into the arms of a couple maternal, concerned volunteers, I futilely tried to use one of my hands to high-five my buddy Dret, who had waited over 15 minutes for me to finish.

After I faked a smile for a finishing picture, Dret accompanied me to the medical tent, which did not compare to the lush accommodations provided at the Puerto Rico 70.3 earlier this year, but was staffed by equally nice volunteers.

In the end, as weird as it seems, I enjoyed this race.  Not only did I manage to squeeze every last drop of effort out of myself again, but overcoming the mental challenge of racing to the finish line at this preposterously difficult race proved to me that I have another gear that will come in handy at Ironman Canada later this year.  And as always, it's really about the chase.  And the chase goes on.

Next up is Vineman. 


Rainbow Dolphin.