Ironman Arizona Retrospective

I wasn’t going to write a retrospective for Ironman Arizona. Why bother, when I didn’t compete in it? Why go back to that dark place that I’ve worked so hard to get over? Because a little over a month later, I can get past disappointment to see that I learned something worth sharing.

Ironmans are epic within themselves (you can read more about my adventures in my book series, The Competitor in Me).  You’ve got a long day of trying to execute a perfect race; one mistake could cost you your goals, even your finish. Ironman Arizona is an epic race on steroids, just because it is so difficult to enter the past few years. In fact in 2013, I tried to register for this race online, but it sold out in 40 seconds. I ended up racing in Ironman Texas that year, with its 96 degree humidity.

Lucky girl, I was able to register for Ironman Arizona 2015, to be held on November 15, 2015. I was in! Even better, my good friend Elke was going to join me in Arizona for race support. She’s an experienced athlete who will know just how to be my handler, and her sparkling personality will keep it fun. Yes, my plan leading up to that day was solid: race three half Ironmans throughout the year to stay sharp. Then, I’d find a way to train in Kona the month before Arizona, while husband Joe raced the Ironman World Championship. That part was a little fuzzy, but I was sure it would work out.

With each half Ironman in 2015, I became stronger. Ironman 70.3 Racine was a great practice and reality check for my run strength. Ironman 70.3 Lake Stevens was a test of my patience with a dangerous, traffic-filled bike course. Ironman 70.3 Silverman was a test of all I was made of. I loved how all three of these experiences challenged me.

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Then came the fuzzy part. I learned training in Kona was nearly impossible, if I was to be a good mother to our youngest child and a supportive wife while Joe raced. I tried to think abundantly instead of having nervous anxiety. Maybe a break in paradise was a good thing… I will have four weeks left to train when I get home. That will be enough time to regroup.

In the meantime, I was invited to speak at a tech conference in Orlando, Florida, just four days before Ironman Arizona. The conference was going to be great; there was no reason I couldn’t speak at the event, and then get to Arizona for the race. Two great things in one week? I got this.

As expected, I struggled through a week of serious jetlag once back in Wisconsin. It wasn’t the worst training, but quality took a hit. I really thought this would be the hardest part of my last few weeks going into the race, but I was wrong.

Work heated up in a good, but huge way. That’s usually the case isn’t it? Some events are just magnets for other things to happen near them, challenging your focus. Now I had three big events in five days. Life is good. I set some high goals for the year and now was the time to live them.

The weeks flew by, and I found myself walking into the Ironman Arizona race expo with my friend the Friday before the race. What an exciting moment. I had made it through two huge, awesome things this week. Now for the icing on the cake: an Ironman!

By the end of the day, I was cold and feeling flat. I was getting sick. This is not happening. Just ignore it. I kept loading Vitamin C and drank hot lemon water.

2015 was the first year of a rolling swim start, instead of a mass start. That was good news. The bad news was that the water was 63 degrees. Cold water is no fun, but I had conquered 60 degree Lake Michigan in July without too much trouble. I could do this. I got this.

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Saturday, after a brisk ride in the 50 degree morning air, we went to check in for the race. There was a practice swim in Tempe Town Lake, but I was too cold to go in. In fact, my throat was sore and my heart rate was high. I willed it away. How? By letting go, and using visualization.

Getting gear ready in T2, the day before Ironman Arizona 2015.

Getting gear ready in T2, the day before Ironman Arizona 2015.

First, I let go of the idea of having a best time here. It seems I’m forever having to forfeit my goals, but it was once again not meant to be a best time experience. Some other learning was on tap for me. Also, by visualizing myself starting the race, in the race, and finishing the race, I could push out the doubt. As my friend and I sat in the sun that afternoon, my imagination was a positive force. An Ironman force.

But the virus invading me was an equally strong force.

For most of us, sleep is fleeting the night before an Ironman. Add a virus in full bloom to that, and you’re awake by 12:00 a.m. I felt worse than I did just a few hours ago. Back to visualization. Think positive.

Mentally taking myself through the race again, I could now see how this virus would attack me in full force, right about mile 8 of the run. If it were a half Ironman, I could probably hang on by my toenails, and finish. But this was Ironman Arizona. At mile eight of 26.2, there would be nowhere to hide. Add to that the threat of rain in the forecast and cool temperatures, I would most certainly DNF, and have pneumonia.

When you see reality with such clarity, it drowns out every objection. Boy, did I have a lot of them. You spent so much money on this race. You flew all the way here. You flew your bike here! You trained all year for this! It’s going to be a long, long winter without this accomplishment!

At 5:00 a.m. in her kitchen, Elke said she completely understood my decision, and gave me a big hug. We agreed to go to the race start and get my bike before the race. We were up anyway.

“Can we watch the swim start?” Elke asked.

“Sure.” I really, really just wanted to distance myself from Ironman. But Elke was my friend, my host, and Ironman handler. If she wanted to see the start, we would do it.

Athletes enter Tempe Town Lake with the loosely guided Swim Smart start.

Athletes pile into Tempe Town Lake with the loosely guided Swim Smart start.

In the bike transition area, I handed my timing chip to an Ironman official. So symbolic of what I was letting go of, that little action was so hard to do.

“You can take your bike through here. I’m sorry you’re sick.” He said.

“Thanks.” I croaked, and went to get my bike and gear bags.

The competitor in me was still squawking. You can still race! Maybe you should just try it! Just get in and go… I pushed past those never-quit thoughts and wheeled my bike through security. My spirit wasn’t broken, just my motor.

I was stopped at the gate, and not allowed through. I had to find the Ironman official again to help me leave. He walked with me out of security and into the morning darkness, where Elke was waiting.

“Where are you from?”

“Wisconsin.”

“Ooo. Again, I’m really sorry.” He had compassion, and, something else in his eyes. I’ll never know what that other thing was, just that it was something very good. “You’ll be back.”

“Thanks. Yeah, with a record of five and eight, I most definitely will be back.”

Flying home, I was a surly, sick and tired grump. But I was able to reflect on a fantastic week of huge highs. I ran my world right up to the wall, sights set on getting to the next level. It worked, for two out of the three goals. Risk and reward. And, defeat. But far more reward was mine! Life was good. And, I took stock in my next goal: I am registered for Ironman Wisconsin 2016. Sure, it was in September, but Ironmans have a way of sneaking up on you.

I texted Joe when I landed: Made it! Don’t forget I have to get my bike first.

Joe: I’m going to be late picking you up because Ironman Arizona registration opens in a few moments. I am going to try to get in online.

Me: Ok.

Ah, the irony. I was glad it was a text, because the face I made at my phone was not pleasant.

Joe picked me up about 20 minutes later than usual, with a big grin on his face. That meant he was glad to see me, but mostly it meant he got into Ironman Arizona. I was happy for him, but I could only offer a weak “congratulations.” I steeled myself for the I’m-racing-Arizona-conversation that followed. After about five minutes of listening to Joe happily chatter about Arizona, and who he might stay with, I had to change the subject away from Ironman.

Because there is so much more to life than Ironman. Like how being a conqueror of mediocrity sometimes means you have to go to uncomfortable places. It means you are fully living.


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