2010 Ironman Arizona: A long post for an even longer race

On the morning of November 23, 2009 I nervously entered my personal information through the Ironman.com website to sign up for the 2010 Ironman Arizona. I have been racing triathlons for five years and up to that point, had not been as nervous on race day as I felt at this exact moment just signing up for a race that would be a year away. I mustered up the courage, pushed submit, and committed myself to train like I had never trained before.

My 2010 race schedule was packed with events to help me along the way. The Huntington Beach Marathon, California Ironman 70.3, The Traverse (an endurance mountain bike race), the Boise Ironman 70.3, The Harding Hustle 30k trail race, the Over The Hump mountain bike series, the OC International Tri, the Malibu International Tri, a few 5k’s, 24 Hours of Adrenalin (8 hour solo mountain bike race), and I’m sure I am missing a couple. I kept busy with training as usual for the first part of the year with the exception of the swim. For the first time in my triathlon career, I needed to take the swim seriously, get more efficient, and develop the endurance necessary to get through 2.4 miles in a respectable time and with energy to spare. In January 2010, I joined the USMS Nova Masters swim team in Irvine and my swim began the transformation.

With four months left to go until the big day, I began to ramp up my training. Bike rides turned from 120 minutes to as much as eight hours long, double-digit mile runs were at least a weekly occurrence, and 2 hour swim sessions with as much as 6,500 yards a pop were happening every week. These sessions continued to increase in volume until the end of October when I had my final training weekend in the isolation of the Nevada desert. From there the volume began to taper down for three weeks for the purpose of leaving me recovered, well-rested, and recharged to go as fast as possible on the big day.

Race week came, I picked up my freshly tuned bike from Tim at Switchback Cyclery, packed my bags, and Elise and I headed out in the Suby to Arizona. Between race fees, equipment, travel, nutrition, and everything else that racks up the cost of triathlon, we were lucky enough to have a dear friend named Jaime who lives near the race venue to host us and save us the money of a hotel while we were in town. Thank you, Jaime!

The two or three days leading up to Ironman are really cool for a first time Ironman. Check-in, the Ironman store, the carbs, the massages, the banquet, the “mandatory” athlete meeting, the Saturday practice swim, they are all things that you don’t want to miss. I’m sure they probably lose their savor and you could forego a few of these things after you have raced a few, but they were definitely good experiences for me. ­

Brandon, Skyler, and Donny at the “mandatory” pre-race meeting

I managed to get a solid six hours of sleep the night before the race (which is unheard of for me) and still managed to wake up ten minutes before my alarm went off at 4 a.m. I ate my pre-planned breakfast and it went down easy.

We drove out to the race venue where Elise dropped me off and kissed me goodbye before she headed to the volunteer check-in on the other side of the lake. To help occupy her time and be of support to the racers, Elise as well as our friend Jaci elected to work on the support crew in kayaks during the swim portion to keep swimmers on course, prevent cheating, and help swimmers if they got hurt, panicked, or otherwise into trouble.

I arrived at transition, double checked my transition bags and memorized their locations and my running route through the transition corral. From there I got body marked, double checked everything on my bike, met up with my friends Brandon, Donny, and Scotty to see how their morning was going thus far. Everyone’s stress level was relatively low and no major catastrophes had taken place.

With 15 minutes to start time, I took a 100 calorie GU and finished the Powerbar Perform sports drink I had been sipping all morning. At this point I had lost Brandon but found Donny again. We jumped in the chilly 60 degree water and swam our way under the Mill Ave bridges to the start line. Being a mid-pack swimmer, I positioned myself near the wall and about 25 feet from the start line. Looking back, I realized I was still very close to the start line considering there were over 2,000 people treading water behind me. Black Sabbath’s Ironman came on over the P.A. and I started to get stoked.

A couple of more minutes went by, the cannon blasted and the water started churning. 2,700 athletes all swimming in the same direction reminded me of my daily commute on the North 405 freeway. The main difference being that on the 405, nobody is kicking and punching me in the face as I try to navigate the congestion.

Of my two close friends that were competing in IMAZ, I consider myself the slowest swimmer of us three. So about 500 yards into the swim, I was breathing to my right and noticed that swimming just three feet away from me was my friend Donny. I knew my swim was going well if I was still next to him. I sighted him a few more times over the next 60 seconds and then never saw him again. I rounded the first buoy with minimal contact to anyone else, swam to the next buoy, turned left again and was headed back to the start with about one mile left. I was tempted to check my watch to see how I was doing but I decided against it and just told myself that no matter what speed I was going, it was time to pick up the pace. After another 300 yards or so, I managed to see Elise’s kayak as I was breathing to the left. On my next breath I let out a holler and got her attention. Later on she told me that at the exact same moment, she saw Donny swimming ten feet behind me. Donny was behind me still? Today was going great. As the swim neared the finish, it started to get very chaotic as swimmers began to increase their turnover and pick the best line to the last turn buoy. I came out of the water in 1:15:56 and Donny came out just 4 seconds behind me. For the first time in my triathlon career, I beat Donny out of the water. My guess is that he won’t want to let that happen again.

Donny at the Saturday practice SwimHere is Donny at the Saturday practice swim

The good news about the swim was not that I beat Donny, it was that the hard work and technique training I put in this season actually paid off and I came out of the water feeling great and like I could have easily swam another 2.4 miles and still felt great getting onto the bike.

Transition was a little longer than it should have been but was otherwise uneventful and since I went a few minutes faster than planned in the water, I had a little bit of a time cushion.

I got out onto the bike course and was feeling good. The course in Arizona consists of three loops on the bike that extend out a gradual climb known as the Beeline Highway. At the turn around on the far end of the first lap is when I realized that the wind would play a significant factor on the day and that each lap would have plenty of time riding into a headwind or a crosswind. As the day progressed, the wind got stronger which was great going up the Beeline but each time I made the turnaround, it was in my face. By the third lap, reports said that winds were up to 40 mph on the beeline. My first lap went exactly according to plan, taking a conservative hour and 54 minutes. I would slightly increase my effort on each of the three laps and hopefully churn out a bike split of about 5:40.

Well, things don’t always go according to plan and during lap two at about the 50 mile mark, I got a flat tire. As one would expect, my tube change took twice as long as it normally would have. I eventually got the flat fixed and was back on my way and trying very hard not to get upset about the flat and try to compensate by pushing too hard. About 20 minutes after the flat is when I encountered my first brief rain storm of the day. At this point, I just laughed about it and pressed on.

By the third lap, the wind was howling out on the beeline and though I was putting out more power, my third lap was slightly slower than my first.

My bike split ended up being 6:01 and I just needed to look on the bright side; perhaps a slower than desired bike split will have saved my legs to go a little faster in the run.

I made it through transition, ran through the wall of sunscreen applicator volunteers, and was off. As expected my legs felt a little wobbly from changing positions but otherwise felt very strong and began feeling light and in good form in just a few minutes. What nobody told me is that the sunscreen people seriously attacked my body with sunscreen. I had a big white handprint on my face, several on my thighs, and my shoulders were bright white. This isn’t a big deal and may have been the thing that preserves me from skin cancer some day, but I am not a tan guy in the first place so I looked pretty silly… at least nobody told me.

I quickly got into a rhythm and was running 8:40 to 8:55 miles for the first 12 miles or so. Within the first mile I met a fellow athlete named Amy who had a similar goal for the run so we decided to stick together and pace off of each other, even taking turns pulling when we were running into a strong head wind. At about mile 10, I began to feel a little sick to my stomach. I finished mile 12 by an hour and 43 minutes, perfectly on pace to run a 3:50 marathon.

Unfortunately, my new running buddy slowly slipped away from me and at mile 13 my stomach pains went from bad to worse and I could barely walk. All I wanted to do was throw up but could not. The most frustrating part was that my legs still felt great, but my stomach didn’t agree. Mile 13 alone ended up being 23 minutes long and mile 14 wasn’t much better at 18 minutes long.

Looking back now, I believe that my bloated stomach can be attributed to me forcing myself to finish my last bottle on the bike. I didn’t give myself enough time to digest before my heart rate went up and my stomach started to move a little more from running, causing me to bloat rather than digest.

Somewhere in the middle of mile 14, a woman named Gina ran by and asked if I was ok. I said no and that my stomach was hurting and she reached into her Fuel Belt and pulled out what looked like a Listerine strip. It ended up being a Gas-X dissolvable strip. She told me to take it and I would be feeling better in ten minutes. I thanked her, continued to shiver in the wind as the sun was beginning to set, and told myself I would begin running once I reached the top of a hill about 1/3 of a mile away. I reached the top of that hill, picked up the pace, and began running. Gina was right! I was feeling much better and as I continued to run, my legs warmed up and I got faster each mile until the finish. My last 6 miles were all back down around 8:40 again and I was feeling great.

As I neared the finish, I skipped the last aid station, picked up the pace more, and managed to see my swim coach, Mike cheering from the sideline near the Mill Ave bridge. I am glad that my coach was able to see me in good form instead of looking like the dejected, shivering sad sack that I was at mile 13.

I continued to race to the finish, heard the words “Skyler Wallace, you are an Ironman,” and was relieved to come across and end triumphantly, a day that had been such a rollercoaster ride. Elise caught me on the other side of the line, escorted me to the photo wall and then to the massage tent, where I had the most epic post race massage from an excellent physical therapist.

The time lost from the stomach issues took its toll and ended up giving me a marathon time of 4:41 and my final result from the day was a 12:08:28. Not near my goal time, but who can really set a goal time for their first Ironman? I learned a lot, loved the experience, and look forward to going faster in the next one, and yes, there will be a next one.

After a few photos with friends, we gathered a few things and headed to P.F. Chang’s to mow hard on tons of spiciness, fat, salt, and sugar. It was delicious.

I owe a huge thanks to my wife for supporting me and putting up with me both in the race and all through the training, to my family, friends, to my number one training partner Pumpkin (our Viszla), swim coaches at NOVA, to my understanding bosses and coworkers at Saatchi LA and at my previous ad agency. And to the great state of California for being such an awesome place to live and train all year long.

If I had to select a few key takeaways from this whole experience I would say first, keep some Gas-X strips with you when you race Ironman. Second, marry an understanding person who supports your passions and shares some of your lunacy. Third, whatever happens during race day, fix the problem, put it behind you, embrace the pain, and reset your brain to be positive.


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