Monday, April 21, 2008

My Ironman Experience

A few Ironman Arizona 2008 Facts:

· One word summary? Extraordinary!
· 2200 athletes including 80 pros signed up for the 140.6 mile / 226.2 km journey.
· We were presented with the 3rd most challenging event in the 30 year Ironman history.
· 95 F / 35 C degree heat and 23 mile / 37 kph headwinds.
· The 2.4 mile / 3.8 km swim = 1hr:15min, 37th in age group and 977th overall
· The 112 mile / 180 km bike = 6hr:38:33, 35th in age group and 943rd overall
· The 26.2 mile / 42 km run(or should I say hobble) = 5hr:57:58, 52nd in age group and 994th overall
· I placed 36th in my age group (W 35 – 39): 130 in my age group signed up,101 started the race and 79 finished.
· I finished in 14 hours and 39 seconds, 993rd out of 2035 athletes who raced.

Race media coverage:

“If you are wondering how tough things were out on the course today, all you have to do is check out the number of DNF's at today's race.
Of the 2035 athletes who started the swim, 2033 finished in time to start the bike.Of those, 1,874 managed to get through the hot and windy bike course.1,830 of those started the run.1689 finished the race.
It sure as heck wasn't friendly to the athletes.
Ironman is supposed to be hard. People like that it's hard.It just shouldn't be that hard.”

“Temperatures in the mid-90s and enervating winds on the outbound leg of the three-loop bike course conspired to plant this season's opening event firmly into the record books as having the third highest dropout rate in Ironman history. Nearly 18% of the field failed to make it to the finish line. Some were SAG'd in, having discovered that there were some times when, no matter far how down you reach, there's just nothing there. Others made it back to T2 on their own power and, in a striking demonstration of how much of a mental game Ironman is, simply decided to let Mother Nature win this one, and packed it in.”

My Ironman experience…

After 6 months of following a strict training regime with a commitment of about 15 hours per week (found in the book, “Start to Finish, Ironman Training”), the final countdown to April 13th was on! I actually enjoyed the weekly challenge of adhering to my training bible, smiling with content and a sense of achievement with each workout that received a checkmark. The preparatory journey allowed me to discover focus, commitment and consistency.

By Saturday night I had checked-in my bike and transition bags at the race site, concocted my hydration mixes, and prepared my race morning gear. I closed my eyes at 8pm; but sleep was a difficult state to achieve… Nervousness, excitement, and anticipation whirled around my brain with fervor like an
Arizona Dust Devil. Perhaps I managed a few hours of sleep… I got-up at 4am, dressed, ate and then Andre and I headed to the race site.

Standing at the jump platform putting on my wetsuit, swim cap and goggles, the canon went off signaling a 6:45 am start for the 80 pro athletes. Now it was my turn to jump into the cold and murky Tempe Lake, along with 2000 other wetsuit clad athletes.

I slowly swam over to the start buoy – trying to imagine the scene that would unfold in just another 10 minutes… I had no idea what to expect! After all, I had only done a handful of short course triathlons in my career, one Olympic Tri last summer with only 110 athletes and 2 Sprint Tris in 2002 and 2001.

Surprisingly, I felt reasonably calm and gave myself the standard Kari pep talk… “Just get ‘er done”. The swim course is a 2.4 mile / 3.8 km single loop swim. The turn-around bridge looked so far away and was directly into the sun, so sighting was a challenge. Cheering spectators lined the bridge and the shores. And then it began…


2035 frantic bodies moving in unison; yet fighting each other only to achieve the same goal, one buoy at a time. It was a full-on mob scene, ultimate fighting, and full contact swim match! I was relentlessly kicked, punched, elbowed, scraped and mauled. It was crazy! I thought tri-athletes were peace loving happy people! The metamorphosis occurred and I also turned into a raving, fierce swimmer, inadvertently dishing out random acts of violence to unsuspecting nearby victims. Under the bridges, near the buoys and at the turnaround the aggression was heightened as bodies converged. It was far more savage than I ever imaged, but I just kept swimming…

My goal was a 1:10 to 1:20 swim and I had no idea how things were going. The swim distance was not too difficult but I climbed out of the water feeling battered and bruised; this feeling subsided immediately once my feet hit solid ground. It was time to focus on the next task - the 112 mile/ 180 km bike.

My transition went fairly smoothly 4min 56sec (Ave time = 8mins, fastest time = 2min 14 sec, slowest time = 27 min) and I ran out of the bike pit glancing up at the timing clock. I disappointed to see a time of 1:35… I guess my swim took longer than I had hoped L – it was not till hours later that I realized I needed to subtract the pro start time. Which meant my swim was 1:15! Exactly what I wanted! Cool!

The fastest swim of the day was from a male aged 18-24 in 47 minutes, I placed 37th in my age group and 977th overall. Only 2 athletes needed to be rescued in the water.

I was happy to settle onto my bike, the only discipline in this crazy rat race that was in my wheel house (pardon the pun). However, I was confronted with a double whammy; 95 F / 35 C heat and 23 mile / 37 km per hour headwinds… But, so was everyone else…

As always, I am reminded that Mother Nature possesses supreme power; although as humans, we think we are superior beings – we must embrace and respect to her strength… Incessantly, carelessly and disrespectfully we endeavor to overpower her force, beauty, purity and wisdom… Oops - I digress… It was damn windy and hot!!!!

Needless to say, the conditions were extremely, extreme! However, I found a comfortable pace and actually starting passing many people; this felt great! Of course, I too was passed by many; like a pylon, marking the route for these lean, fit, aerodynamic, legs on lungs, cycling machines! It was inspiring!

The bike course consists of 3 loops past downtown Tempe, ASU and then through the Pima- Maricopa Indian Reserve; passing tall green
Saguaro Cactus standing in salute, bright yellow spring dessert flowers smiling in encouragement and Red Rock Mountain watching and waiting patiently at the turnaround. Getting to the turnaround was a constant battle against the wind. I just keep looking at my speed and my heart rate monitor trying to stay sub lactate threshold, telling myself to stay in control, settle, relax and breathe.

The turn around offered a huge reward – a tailwind! I kicked up the gear and was smoking. I was passing people and felt strong. I even managed to get my speed up to 40 miles/ 64 km at times. I finished the first loop in a time of 2:08 – almost on track with my goal of 2 hours. Now I just had to repeat this 2 more times! Andre and my small fan club of local friends screamed out encouragement as I zoomed passed. It was getting hotter and windier but everything was going well and I felt good.

Bike laps 2 (2hr:11min) and 3 (2hr:19min) were pretty much a repeat except a bit slower. I finished the bike course in 6:38 hours, which was slower than I had planned but not too bad considering the extra mental and physical challenges. I was 35th in my age group. 160 athletes had dropped out of the race during the bike segment. The fastest bike time was 4:32 from another male pro and the slowest time was 8:52.

I started feeling nauseous towards the last hour on the bike but not too severely. I thought that everything was under control. Hydration and fueling felt on track, my legs were a little fatigued but again I felt this was manageable, I was ready for the marathon!

The bike to run transition was quite smooth also – this is one that I practiced a lot, 3min 48 sec. The fastest pro did the transition in 1min; many people took their time here (some over an hour) to try and recover from the heat and wind.

Now to start the marathon – it was about 3pm and very, very, very hot! The run course was 3 loops around Tempe Town Lake, where we had swam hours ago. This is known as the most spectator friendly course on the Ironman circuit. There were people everywhere!

I started to run, but my legs hadn’t yet adjusted to the switch of activity. My stride was short and slow. My stomach felt a little queasy. Don’t worry Kari, you will pull it together – be patient… I was about halfway to the first mile aid station and my left quad and left calf cramped! I have never, ever had a cramp before. My leg straightened and I yelped in pain. I tried to bend my leg and kind of crumpled like a little marionette; I wanted to control those puppet strings but someone else had high jacked the reigns! I remembered back to many adventure races when my team mates would cramp, cry out in pain, gasping for air, writhing in the dirt; while I stood by helplessly, with a silly grin, thinking “oh come’on, suck it up” and wondering how bad could it really be? Well, now I know!

I tried to walk it off and just keep moving in the right direction, trying to pull myself together. All of a sudden, like something out of the exorcist, I unleashed the most unexpected projectile vomit - a colorful rainbow of Gatorade. How pretty! NOT! I vomited so forcefully that I popped my ears and couldn’t hear out of my left ear! The left side of my body was failing me. I almost started laughing! Things were just not functioning the way I wanted. It’s ok Kari – you still have the right side. Use what you have and please keep moving. I hobbled to the first mile aid station, ate and drank. Now reality set in. I still had 25.2 miles / 40.5 kms to go and I was a mess! I must recover. I hobbled to the 2nd mile marker, ate and drank some more and experienced limited improvement. Onto the 3rd mile marker… Same deal – no improvement. It had taken me about 50 mins to travel only 3.5 miles! My goal of a 4 hour marathon was shattered and I was now in survival mode. It’s ok - you will be an Ironman – just keep moving…

I tried to run but the cramps returned and my stomach was not working. I just kept on moving, walk and run, walk and run, don’t stop.

I looked around and was amazed at 2 things. Firstly, I was amazed at the number of athletes who were walking – wasn’t this a running race? Why was everyone walking? Oh, yes – I remember, this is brutal! Athletes would hobble up beside me and feebly chat, each short conversation started the same way, “The wind killed me…. And then I cramped… It’s so hot…” This started to become monotonously humorous.

Secondly, I was amazed at the other half of the athletes who were running! I felt so proud of them and wanted a taste of their energy, leg strength, and mental conditioning. Why was I walking while they could still run? A man ran beside me and put a gentle hand on my back, ‘come on’ he said and my legs obeyed. I ran for a little while… Was this all it took? I took note of how such a simple gesture can motivate. I think in my next Ironman I would like to just run around the course and motivate others who are feeling down. One day this will be my goal. I will be the Energizer Ironbunny!

Anyhow, the remainder of the 1st lap was a mixture of walking, running, cramping, puking… I couldn’t seem to pull together. But I kept a smile on my face and just kept moving. I finished my first lap in about 2 hours. The thought of bailing never really entered my head. It just wasn’t an option.

I started my 2nd lap, many athletes were on their third or had already finished. I tried not to feel discouraged. By this time most people were walking and were in survival mode, very few were still running. A man walked up beside and initiated the standard intro, “The wind killed me…”, you know what comes next. I gave him an understanding smile and I said, “I know and I’m only on my second run lap!” He looked at me, crusted in salt and dripping with envy and exclaimed, “this is my first!”.

Andre was waiting for me on the side of the course about one third through lap 2. It was great to see him. He ran beside me for a few minutes and provided words of encouragement. What an awesome surprise.

At the halfway mark, I was mentally feeling better, physically not much had changed. I saw a young guy sitting on the side of the run course with his head between his knees. I asked if he was ok and he looked up at me but didn’t say anything. I held out my hand and said, “take my hand, I’ll pull you up and we will walk together”. It was more of a statement than an offer. Hesitantly, he grabbed my hand. I pulled him up and we stayed together for the remainder of the race. He was a 27 year old marine from North Carolina, named Brandon. His pregnant wife and 2 small children were here to support him. We walked for about 25 mins before he said anything to me. His first words were this, “I wouldn’t have kept going without you”. This made my day and was one of the many highlights of the event.

The spectators and volunteers were incredible. My name was written on my race bib so every few minutes someone would cheer for me by name. This celebrity status was encouraging and appreciated and never seemed to get old. I smiled and thanked each cheerleader.

Near the end of the second lap, the fiery, hot, orange Arizona sun slipped quietly down below the Tempe Lake bridges, casting a peaceful dessert glow over the race site. The sun looked tired to me and seemed to have a smug look on her face. It was as if she was saying, “You wanted a challenge so you got it! I worked hard today to heat things up. Now I’m going to sleep. See ya tomorrow!”

Even the calm Tempe Lake waters were looking at me saying, “Whaaat? Look how tranquil and serene I am? Why were you acting so turbulently agitated this morning?” Don’t worry folks – I was not hallucinating – just being in the moment, enjoying the scene and relishing my Ironman experience. Just one more lap for me! Yay!

140 athletes dropped out of the run…

My new friend, Brandon and I decided to run a little more in the last lap and attempt to complete our Ironman in 14 hours. The final lap was pretty uneventful. I knew that we would make it and today I would become an Ironman!

As we neared the finish line we could hear the erupting cheers of the crowd. It was just a matter of time. We ran the final few miles using pure adrenalin. I told Brandon that we should run across the line together. He said no – he wanted me to run in first and savor the moment. He reminded me that he wouldn’t have stood up if I hadn’t pulled him up.

Running through the finish chute was a complete blur of emotion, fatigue, noise, cheers, lights, cameras, and Mike Reilly, (the voice of the Ironman) shouting, “You are an Ironman”!

The finisher medal was hung around my neck and the 140.2 mile journey was completed in 14 hours and 38 seconds.

What an absolutely awesome experience! Before jumping into the water in the morning a camera man approached and asked why I was doing Ironman and thrust a microphone toward me. “Because I can”, was my answer….

Ironman offered an opportunity to exceed self imposed limits and to “feel” life; feel my heart beat, feel the blood run through my veins, feel the oxygen in my lungs, feel tears sting my eyes and simply feel alive.

Everyone has their own Ironman… Please remember…
Be all that you are – everyday. Everyday is a miracle. Every breath is a gift.
Thanks for reading my story.


The day after the race, my lips were cracked and bleeding, my left calf and quad were very sore, my left ear was still ringing (from my power heave), my eyes were blood shot and wind burned, my butt was aching from wearing a very small bike shammy in the long ride, my arms and neck were chaffed and fried from the sun, my feet were one big giant blister, I weighed 110lbs (even after eating and drinking like crazy – 116 was pre-race weight)… And I felt great!

Here is a cool you tube video of the swim start:
http://youtube.com/watch?v=Nm907plO3H0&feature=related

2 comments:

Matt Spak said...

Congratulations Kari. Amazing job and an amazing story. When are you doing the next one?

Papa G said...

Great account Kari and very inspiring too. That is an awesome accomplishment! Congratulations!!
G.