Race: Ironman Arizona, Tempe, Arizona (2.4 mi swim, 112 bike, 26.2 run)
Weather: cool, ~50 at the start to mid-70s during the day to cool again by the end.
Teammates present: 15 teammates from Triabetes, a bunch of guys & gals from Team Pacific Bicycle and a whole host of Triabetes friends & family
Goals: to keep focused on finishing and enjoying celebrating the day; to stay comfortable during the swim and bike and to allow myself time as needed in transition; to manage IT band injury so I could finish without causing long-term consequences.
Some races are about shooting for a new personal record (PR) or placing well; others are about making it to the starting line and doing one's best to finish. This race would be the latter.
Before the Start
Since I arrived with fellow teammate Sean at 5 AM, two hours before the start, I had plenty of time to make final preparations. I pumped up my tires, dropped off the special needs bags (which they give back to you midway through the bike and run), and cycled through the portapotty line a couple of times. I felt relaxed and ready to go--it really helps that they have you drop off all your gear the day before. Also, I planned to take a simpler approach to the bike and run this year, and would rely more on the aid stations for my fluids and nutrition. In past races, I have used Perpetuum on the bike, but this time I would just try Gatorade, water, and mix of solid food supplemented with gels etc. as needed. I would shoot for about 200 to 250 calories per hour while on the bike. For the run, I would carry plenty of fast-acting carbs with me, but also knew I could use the PowerGels and other food they were offering if I ran low. I had an extra infusion set inserted and primed the day before, but also had a spare on my bike and in my run special needs bag. I had a meter for the swim start, and another that I would stick in my jersey pocket on the bike and run. I had also thrown in a spare meter in my run transition bag.
After pulling on my wetsuit, I randomly found a few other Triabetes people; we made our way to the start with the slowly moving crowds. Sarah Jane and Sarah W. had set up a table near the start where we could leave our diabetes gear, and I was able to check my blood glucose (BG) one more time before hopping in the water. Although a bit on the cold side at 62 degrees, the water felt okay compared to swimming in the San Francisco Bay, and I was hoping that the fresh water would be kinder on my neck, since I yet again forgotten to put Body Glide on beforehand. I've seen some pretty bad wetsuit neckline welts before and wondered how long those took to heal. Oh well, it was too late; I just hoped for the best.
I lost everyone by then and just swam toward the start line, which was probably about 200 yards away. I had barely gotten somewhat close when the gun went off; we were underway! I started somewhere in the middle, trying to avoid the right side, where I imagined the more aggressive swimmers would be. Anyway, it was your typical Ironman swim start mayhem for a while but I could tell that we were going at a decent speed, and tried to stay in the pack. With about 2500 people starting, it was a big crowd! Partway down, I just didn't feel like dealing with it and inched out a little. Then the sun came up directly ahead and I couldn't see anything and just sighted off the other swimmers. I hate it when I look over and realize there is NO ONE to my side. I would move left, back to the pack to get some draft and then find myself to the right again. We passed beneath some bridges that I thought were near the turnaround, but I couldn't see the landmarks I had picked out earlier. But suddenly I was at the big red buoy; for the first time ever in a race, I thought, "Wow, it's already time to turn around!" I think having so many swimmers packed together in a somewhat narrow lake made for a stronger current than you might have at Ironman Coeur d'Alene or Wisconsin. Also, the turnaround buoy is not quite halfway through the course. I wondered if I might PR on the swim.
Swimming back, I felt really hungry and debated whether I should stop for a gel. I wasn't sure if I was low or just hungry since I had skipped my pre-race GU (gel), but decided to go ahead just to be safe. Also, if I even suspect that I have low BG, I tend to slow down; and usually when I am swimming, if I think I'm low, I am. But not always. For me, though, feeling hunger pangs is a pretty good indication of falling BG while exercising. I did feel better after the GU, although kicking on my back while eating seemed to disturb my calves and I started to cramp up. I tried to flex my feet and relax my calves, but they totally seized up. Owww! As I floated on my back, trying to relax the cramps, a woman in a kayak asked if I needed help. Hmm, I had sort of prided myself on not needing to stop during an IM swim, but this sounded like a good idea. Another woman who was closer slid up next to me on a surfboard and I grabbed it while trying to stretch out my calves. It took a few minutes but finally they relaxed, and I was able to swim the last half-mile without a problem. The Triabetes table had miraculously moved to the swim exit; I was very grateful for help with a post-swim BG check, which would give me a few extra minutes to make necessary adjustments. Also, it appeared that my neck was not chafed. Yeah!
I ran to get my transition bag, and slipped into the tent to get on my bike gear. I had opted to wear the Triabetes tri shorts and top for the whole race, rather than changing into separate bike and run clothes, so didn't really have that much to do. The volunteers rubbed me down with sunblock, which sort of globbed up on my wet skin. Clearly I wasn't in too much of a hurry, because I stopped in the portapotty to rub it in, probably wiping most of it off! (Yeah I had some weird sunburns the next day.) Eventually, I made it out of T1 and was on the bike. The Kestrel felt light under my feet as I made my way up the ramp, forgetting the rule about not passing anyone there. I saw some Triabetes fans wearing their blue shirts and I was happy!
My plan for the bike was to pace conservatively so that I could finish this leg without a flare-up of my IT band knee pain. I kept telling myself, "Don't be greedy!" meaning that it was NOT okay to just say, "Forget about the run! I'm going to hammer on the bike!" I have done this before! With such a flat course, I suspected that I might PR while keeping a steady but comfortable pace. Because I only had one water bottle cage on my bike, I planned to drink one bottle of water between each aid station, and would grab some Gatorade at the beginning of each, drink what I could and toss it at the last trash drop. With aid stations every 10 miles, I figured I would be passing one every 30-40 minutes, which would be fine. Actually, I suspected I might drink more, knowing that I had one bottle that should be mostly empty by the next stop. Also, I felt that by forcing myself to slow down a little for the aid stations, I would keep the pace under control better. My goal was to finish, remember? I tried to keep this in mind.
The course was 3 loops and nearly flat. Well, there was a mostly big-chain-rideable uphill on the way out and then the reverse slight downhill on the way back. There was a small short hill near the turnaround just long enough to stretch my legs out a bit. On the first loop out we had a pretty strong headwind, which took me by surprise since there had been NO wind whatsoever the days leading up! But the way down was super fast and fun and wow, that Kestrel is a bullet. I was so happy to see my mom and aunt along the sidelines on the way back, and got a big lift from the Triabetes crowds (as well as other friendly cheerers) at the turnaround for the start of lap two. I was enjoying this and felt strong and comfortable.
Just starting the bike. (Photo courtesy of Blair Ryan)
The next loop up, there was also some headwind, but on the turnaround there was also headwind. What?? Where did that beautiful tailwind go? Still, it was downhill and I had my goofy aero helmet on, which I actually love after all these years of mocking them, so it wasn't too bad. I stopped for my special needs bag and munched on some food and took a stop at the bathroom and was on my way again. I reminded myself that it was okay to not go crazy and rush through everything. I felt pretty good for the rest of the ride despite one serious flare-up of IT band pain. My physical therapist (PT) told me to swing my knee a little wider if this happened and lo! and behold! it worked. The pain was completely gone after a few minutes. I was happily surprised. Riding in the aero position was not entirely comfortable for me but I hadn't prepared much that way so I wasn't too surprised. I was probably in my aero position for about 50-55% of the time, when it should have been closer to 90-95% given the course.
Even though it was a good ride for me (and a PR of 40 minutes), I was happy to finish up and get off the bike! Immediately after handing a volunteer my bike, my knee started hurting. I walked slowly towards the transition bags as the volunteers pointed me up the hill towards my number. Well, I guess I just had one leg left. A marathon. Maybe if I took my time in transition, my knee would chill out and I could at least get through half the run still running. I finished the bike sometime around 3:30 PM, so would have over 8 1/2 hours to get through 26.2 miles. I felt like I could do this but I really didn't want to be out there that long!
Eventually, after procrastinating as much as I could, I crossed the timing mat to start the run. My plan was to start off at a really conservative pace and just hope I could maintain that for the whole marathon. My knee was hurting a little for the first few miles, but I was relatively comfortably maintaining an 11-12 min/mile pace, which was my target. Around mile 3, I started feeling really spacy and checked my BG, which was in the 50s. I reprogrammed my basal rate, shut off the pump for 30 min, and loaded up on carbs. I decided to wait to start running again until I got above 80. I think Seb passed me here and it was good to see a fellow Triabetes teammate. My BG finally came up and I resumed my slow run. I was happy to see my mom and aunt, who were exactly where they said they would be, at the top of one of the short hills. "This is going to be a long run," I said. I was glad to note that they had some chairs to sit in!
Around mile 5, I decided to walk a little to give my knee a break, which seemed to help. On the second loop, by mile 8, the pain had increased and I was limping quite a bit. Some volunteers tried to help at an aid station by massaging my calf and knee area, but it got even worse after that, and my pace dropped off closer to 14-15 min/mile. I don't know if it was the massage; it probably would have gotten worse anyway. I kept recalculating how long this would take. Four MPH and 18 miles to go? I didn't want to think about it. I had asked my PT before the race whether the pain was something that should alert me to stop. I really wanted to finish; but more important to me was the ability to continue exercising after the race. He said that it could be a few weeks for the recovery, but that it shouldn't cause long-term problems. This was a relief to me as I continued, and although it was painful, I kept the pace below a level that would have caused burning pain. This would have been a show-stopper, whether or not I wanted to continue.
After an eternity I finished the second lap. The Triabetes tent area was amazing and it was so special to run through there. Thanks to my teammate Reid's sons for giving me the extra cheers as I passed through. Thinking about that last lap was a bit discouraging, because my pace was now somewhere between 3-4 MPH and I kept thinking, "I can't believe I am going to be out here for more than 2 hours!" But dang! I still wanted to finish this thing. I felt that physically I could get through it. Mentally, though, it was a struggle. At least, on this last lap, I knew I would be passing through each spot for the last time.
I was really happy to see a few faces from last year out there, including Aaron Perry, who was giving big cheers out in the boonies of the run course (yeah!) and Dave Shack, who was close to the Triabetes tent area. I commented to Dave how I had thought many times of his "power-walking in biking shorts" comment that made it to the documentary. Dave had made it through with a lot of walking and massive blisters on the bottoms of his feet! I guess I could muddle through another 5 miles. (But, still, ugh!!!) Thanks, too, to Ray Ibsen of Andiamo who walked with me a bit, his camera in hand. (Ray, you must have a really strong right arm.) A week of traveling had caught up with Elisa, so she had gone to bed; but she was still in my mind as I made my way around.
Crossing one of the bridges, Reid and Sean caught up with me, and we walked together for a while. It was so nice to be together, and I was happy to see that they were doing well. Soon enough, Denise came motoring on through like the Energizer bunny, and Reid and Sean decided to pick it up for the end. I tried to run a little here and there; it didn't seem to really help my pace all that much. But the end was in sight. After hearing Mike Reiley announcing other finishers for hours, it would soon be my turn. I discovered I had a little juice left and picked it up (relatively speaking!) for mile 25, and then dropped my pace by about 3 min/mile for mile 26. The crowds had all moved to the finish line, except for Nate Heintzman and teammate Jerry Nairn, a happy sight in the solitude of that last mile.
Entering the finish area was maybe one of the best experiences I have had, ever. I saw so many people who are so dear to me, and others whom I hadn't met but who were sincerely cheering me on. I think this is a huge part of what makes these events so special. Not to be too sappy, but there is a genuine sense of caring, love and happiness and as my dad once said, it is a "celebration of humanity." Doing an Ironman is a self-inflicted challenge and some may wonder, "Why do it?" But what you do when you participate in an event like this is to teach yourself on a physical, emotional, and mental level that you are capable of pushing through something that may seem too difficult to bear. I tried to take it slow and just enjoy celebrating this finish, and immediately knew that it had been worth it all, not just that day but over the whole year and many years prior.
Thank you to everyone who participated in the weekend, both in Arizona and remotely in other locations. And thank you to my Triabuddy Elisa; I am totally serious when I say I wouldn't have made it to the start without her implicit support. Also I am very grateful to Kristin McGrath from Colorado Premiere Training; she enthusiastically and patiently coached me through my recovery and a complicated race schedule.
I hope to see Triabetes continue to grow so that more and more athletes with diabetes feel supported in their fitness goals, whether racing an Ironman or training for their first 5k run. For me, it has been a gift that makes it worth struggling with diabetes all these years. I am grateful to those who have supported Triabetes through volunteering, donations and sponsorships, making all of this possible. Thank you!
So happy. (Photo courtesy of Blair Ryan)