“…Ford Ironman Arizona has quickly gained a reputation as perhaps the most spectator-friendly course on the circuit.
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.
As forecasts of hot weather grew more alarming in the days preceding the race, Jonathan Toker of “Salt Stick” couldn’t unpack boxes of his patented cramp-fighting product fast enough to supply the demand at the expo. But at least the local television meteorologists were promising calm conditions rather than a repeat of last year’s ferocious winds.
Memo to the weather department: “How’d that work out for you guys?”
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.”
“Oh my goodness, it was tough out there. Anyone who finishes out there is just awesome…I was happy to see the finish line. I was praying to see the finish line.”
T-5 Days—The Countdown Begins:
On the first day, I did my final speed run workout, on the 2nd I packed, on the 3rd drove to Tempe. Registered on the 4th day. On the 5th day, I dropped off my bike and bags. On the 6th day, I became an Ironman. And on the 7th day, I rested.
I’ve never been so nervous. For 10 days prior, I couldn’t eat or sleep. Which made me even more nervous. You have to eat and sleep a lot the week before your Ironman, right? I packed 2 weeks out—there was so much to bring, so much to organize—I didn’t want to forget anything. I had lists upon lists—to-do lists, schedules, race plans, checklists, notes—all printed out on crisp white paper, which soon became covered in ink as I wrote additions and addendums in the margins.
Then there was the weather forecast. Every day the forecast for the Sunday’s high rose another degree. I watched in horror: 86, 88, 90, 93, 95. Stop! Please, stop! I was being thrown into the bowels of hell. At least the winds will be low, I reasoned. I would be cursing myself repeatedly for this statement on race day. I tried bargaining with the Elements: How about 85 and more wind? Like 15 mph, instead of 5? It was as if Fate had decided it wouldn’t be Rachel’s First Ironman without the most brutal conditions in the history of the race. Thanks. Much appreciated.
My bunnies, Babs and Taz, sensed my anxiety and excitement and mirrored them in my final days in San Diego. Taz, expressed my excitement and spryly leaped little pirouettes and arabesques into his litterbox, jumping for joy despite his 85 years-of-age. Babs chose to express my deepest fears. When I stooped down to pet her, she froze, wide-eyed before sprinting off to hide under the couch, stomping to warn us of danger as she bounded away. Babs and Taz captured the full spectrum of my emotions, from the ying to the yang.
We arrived in Tempe on Thursday, T-3 days. The dryness of the air hit me first. I started hitting the water like an alcoholic to scotch; I couldn’t be found without a bottle in my hand. I also began slathering on chapstick and sunscreen and pouring rewetting drops into my dry, scratchy eyes, in a desperate attempt to peel the contacts from my corneas. How do people live out here, I thought, staring pointedly at a happy cactus, deeply rooted in the sand.
On Friday, I briefly previewed the swim and bike course. I spent 15 minutes in Tempe Town Lake, testing my goggles and wetsuit. The water temp was about 63 degrees. Not too warm, not too cold. Just right. I felt speedy. This was followed by a brisk 20 minute ride on Torch. He shifted perfectly, the race wheels spun with a soothing, rhythmic, “Zwoosh, zwoosh,” sound. Music to my ears. I cruised down and back on the first part of the bike course effortlessly in the mild temps and wind at a freakishly high speed, tortuously tempting me in anticipation of race day. Delusions of grandeur of a blindingly fast bike danced through my head like 606 carbon Zipp race wheels. I finished my final taper workouts in flying colors. There was a certain sense of finality which gave me a slight shudder.
I proceeded through registration. The volunteer slapped on my silver wristband. I had been branded. My days were numbered.
“You’re committed now,” she said.
“Oh, I’ve been committed. For a year,” I replied.
It took me 2 more hours to finish packing my gear bags that night. I had already spent 6 packing and re-packing at home. I had everything. Eye drops, sunblock, chapstick, saline nasal spray, spare contacts, an emergency pharmacy bag, blister kit…nothing went overlooked. I had now accepted race day would be hot. In anticipation, I had made a final trip to CVS and purchased some soft coolers. I had also come equipped with industrial shipping ice packs designed to keep chemicals at –20 C. Little did I know these ice packs and coolers would be my saving grace on race day.
--packing my gear bags for the final time
On Saturday (T-1), I checked in my bike and gear bags. There was a sense of relief in giving them up. I didn’t have to worry about them anymore. It was out of my hands. Spent the rest of the day staying off my feet, staying out of the heat, and drinking lots of water. I tried to nap to no avail.
--checking in Torch. It's out of my hands now (T-1).
A small, intimate group of friends, family and athletes rendezvoused at 5:30 for sushi for our “Last Supper.” “Isn’t sushi risky the night before an Ironman?” a friend had inquired. But eating sushi the night before every big race and training day had become an established ritual for me as long as I could remember. It was the perfect mix of protein and carbs and always burned clean in my system. I added some soy sauce and miso soup for salt, and I was set.
--donning my lucky pre-race hat (autographed by Kate Major) during my sushi "Last Supper"
After setting 3 alarms for 4 am, I fell asleep surprisingly quickly at 10:00. Almost 4 but had restrained myself. 3 alarms were quirky but 4 was crossing the line. I awakened at 3:30, wide-eyed and alert. I forced myself to relax and enjoy my final moments, practicing pre-race visualization tactics until 3:45. After that, I got up. I just couldn’t take it anymore.
I was actually able to consume my pre-race breakfast—banana, Autumn Wheat cereal with skim milk and a half cup of coffee—just enough to prevent a caffeine-withdrawal headache without instigating stomach upset. The drive to the race that morning was harrowing. I couldn’t stop hyperventilating and felt dangerously carsick the entire time. I forced myself to practice deep breathing exercises, which helped when successfully performed, which was seldom. I kept repeating over and over: I’m going to go out there and swim for a little bit, bike for a long time, and run for a while. This became my pre-race mantra. I was VERY relieved to get out of the car at the race site.
--standing with my dad in my warm-up clothes (lucky Kate Major visor and PR half-marathon shirt (San Dieguito)). I look nervous.
--bravely smiling for the camera with Brent before heading to the start.
Once we got there, I went to work and calmed down. I checked in my special needs bags, made final checks to my gear bags, added my freshly frozen bottles nestled inside their protective, cold coolers, and made final adjustments to Torch. I uncovered his blanket that had shielded him from yesterday’s heat, pumped up his tires, and added water to the aero bottle. It felt good to be doing things. To be in action. I was settling down and right on schedule.
--Proudly displaying my body marking. I've been branded!
I surveyed the scene around me. The air was thick and silent. The tension was palpable. Few athletes smiled or made eye contact. However, the camaraderie among the athletes was remarkable. We were all in this together and would do everything we could to help get all of us to the finish. Other Ironman veterans gave me priceless words of wisdom:
“It will be tough but don’t give up. No matter what. Never give up.” Words that would float through my head all day long, bolstering me in the darkest and deepest canyons.
--view of the transition area from Mill Avenue Bridge
--a closer look of the hustle and bustle of the transition area. Swimmers line up by the lake. Spectators crowd the Mill Ave Bridge, vying for the best view.
I spotted Michellie Jones suiting up. She looked tense and very nervous. This caught me by off-guard and oddly enough, calmed and reassured me. If it’s okay for Ironman World Champion Michellie Jones to be nervous, then it’s perfectly legit for me to be nervous too, I thought to myself. We applied our war paint (Body Glide), put on our armour (wetsuits), helmets and masks (caps and goggles) and headed to the front line, expressionless and stoic, prepared for battle.
Everyone huddled on the swim deck, waiting until the last possible moment to hop into the water. I weaved to the front and jumped in. The water was chilly—63 degrees—but I’d been swimming all winter in 60 so it didn’t feel too bad. I swam a few strokes to make sure my goggles were in place, my wetsuit felt comfortable and arms relaxed. Check, check. All systems go. I found a comfortable spot just in front of Mill Bridge and tried to relax as I gently treaded water. We chatted nervously with each other. “It’s going to be a long day,” I said.
“Not as long as you think. It will go by much more quickly than you expect so try to enjoy it,” a veteran replied. More priceless words of wisdom.
--The lull before the storm. A quiet and still Tempe Town Lake by the start line early race morning.
--Swimmers make their way to the start just east of Mill Ave Bridge.
--2100 swimmers seed themselves by the start. The lake is no longer empty.
--Bird's eye view of 2100 caps from Mill Ave Bridge.
--Somehow, above on the bridge, my Dad found me in the sea of blue and pink heads. I'm the pink head in the lower left corner.
An eerie stillness settled over Tempe Town Lake as the early morning sun, still a deceptively soothing golden sphere, rose in the east, casting a soft, yellow glow on the water. 2100 blue and pink caps gently bobbed in the water as the National Anthem floated through the loudspeakers. I felt strangely calm and disembodied—somewhere far away, floating above, watching from a spectator’s point of view. Suddenly Paul Huddle’s voice boomed over the loudspeaker, rudely snapping me back to reality: “THERE’S GOING TO BE AN IRONMAN HERE TODAY!!!” This was countered with a cacophony of thundering shouts and cheers. An Ironman? Here? Today? What! Where? Holy Shit! Shivers ran down my spine. All efforts to suppress my nerves and calm excitement were instantly shattered with those words. Moments later, the cannon fired with a deafening roar and all that I had been working for with every fiber of my being for over a year had suddenly begun.
--And so it begins...
"The gun goes off and everthing changes... the world changes... and nothing else really matters."
--Patti Sue Plummer
Everyone began swimming at once. I resolved to stay calm and not panic as thousands of thrashing bodies tried to force themselves into the same place at the same time. I withdrew into my bubble, forbidding myself to get flustered, refusing to expend extra energy. Like the start of a poorly seeded marathon, sometimes you have to walk a bit at the start before finding room to break into a comfortable rhythm. After 100 yards, I was able to settle into a regular “heads-up” water polo freestyle in order to circumvent the hundreds of bodies around me. Slowly, I picked my way through, finding the gaps.
--the mosh pit at the beginning of the swim.
Surprisingly, within only a few hundred yards, I found a clear line and quickly settled into a nice, relaxed rhythm. Not bad. Not bad at all. Certainly not as bad as I had envisioned. I felt my muscle tension ease and my body relax. Sighting was a cinch—I swam straight towards the Scottsdale Road bridge, directly into the sun. Rarely did I have to lift my head to see where I was going. To my right, I watched the spectators lining the canal. To the left, I watched the buoys. I counted strokes to settle into a rhythm and free my head from thought. Every 10 strokes, I switched sides to evenly distribute the work throughout my body.
A few hundred yards from the turn-around, I somehow got boxed between two swimmers on either side. WTF? At this point, there was plenty of room in the lake. I didn’t understand why they insisted on swimming right there. No excuse. I had nowhere to go, and the swimmers blocking me seemed to have no qualms about body-slamming me. What is this? A Pantera concert? I hadn’t been taking masters swimming for over a year for nothing! I decided to showcase my multiple speeds. I ramped up from base pace to “drop your sorry ass”, and shot ahead, leaving the mosh pit far behind. After finding myself in clear waters, I shifted back down to base pace and quickly recovered. Thanks, Sickie, for all those sprint sets!
The turn-around snuck up on me. I had settled into a relaxed rhythm and wasn’t ready for it. Already? I started to get excited. This swim was going to be easier than I had anticipated. My pace picked up a bit. As I headed back, I could see the Mill Ave Bridge in the distance, slowly getting closer, taunting me. However, things in the water may appear closer than they actually are. It seemed to take an eternity to reach that damn bridge. After being in the water for about an hour, I started to get cold. I hadn’t expected that. I kicked my legs a little harder to increase my circulation.
Having more than one gear in the water came in handy yet again. I felt greedy hands on both my feet and legs as a guy crawled on top of me, pushing me forcibly down. Again, there was plenty of room to go around. Did this dude think he was going to swim OVER me? I don’t think so! I began kicking furiously, threatening to give him a free nose job. I picked up the pace and shot ahead through the water, leaving him far behind. He didn’t bother me again.
I finally reached the Mill Bridge and felt jubilation. I was nearing the end of the swim. I slowed down, relaxing, preparing my body to stand up after being horizontal for over an hour. Afterall, I still had a long ride and marathon, and I didn’t see any reason to hurry. Apparently, other swimmers didn’t share my point of view. Everyone began sprinting towards the swim finish. As I turned towards the exit ramps, I started getting jostled yet again. I was deadlocked between 2 big, bulky swimmers. This time, I was a little more hesitant to sprint ahead, wanting to be fully recovered when I reached the ramps. Before I could drop back, I got a swift kick in the gut and an elbow to the jaw. Thanks, guys! The last place I was expecting a beating was the end of the swim. Oh, well. I bowed out with humility and let them pull ahead.
I finally reached the stairs where a volunteer was ready and waiting. He smoothly pulled me out of the water and solidly onto my feet, pulling down the top half of my wetsuit in one smooth swoop. I stared at the clock and smiled. 1:22. I was not expecting that. In addition, I felt fresh. The swim had been a nice, relaxing warm-up. Bring on the bike.
--finally out of my wetsuit and onto T1. Bring on the bike!
I wriggled out of my wetsuit, refusing help from the long row of strippers. My new wetsuit had been advertised as a cinch to take off, and it certainly had lived up to that promise in practice. Apparently not on race day. Shoot. When else do I get to use strippers? I finally wriggled out of it and walked, not ran, towards the changing tent. Why was everyone running? I forced myself not to get caught up in the excitement and tried to conserve energy. In the tent, I methodically put on my sunblock, slipped into my jersey, fully-loaded with CO2 cartridges and Cliff Bars, bike shorts, complete with precious, life-saving chamois butter. I dried my feet on a hand towel and slipped them into socks with baby powder. Put on my shoes, helmet, and sunglasses. I wasn’t hurried in my motions but neither was I slow. All of a sudden, there was nothing left to do. I was ready. I left the tent, allowed the volunteers to slather on more sunscreen and made my way to the bike pen. A bike handler led Torch to me. That’s what I call service! Torch was a little frisky with the handler but I calmed him down and led him to the mounting area. I clipped in, and we were off!
--Leading Torch out of the bike pen.
--Riding out of transition. And we're off!
I can sum it up in one word: Misery.
I was in good spirits when I first hopped on the bike. Morale was high. I wasn’t afraid of the heat. Afterall, it’s always cooler on the bike because of wind, right? I wasn’t even thinking about wind because the forecast had predicted calm conditions. I should have known better.
As I headed out of town on my first loop, I was struck in the face with full-force gales. I was shocked. Totally blindsided. But not worried. Yet. It had to be a passing fluke. It will die down, I reasoned. I had to wrestle to keep the bike upright as crosswinds hit me. Thank God B&L (my bike shop) had insisted on the 404’s instead of the 606’s I had so stubbornly desired. I have no idea how those guys with the disc wheels stayed on their bikes that day. A particularly nasty gust of wind punched us, and Torch skittered across the road. I slowly soothed him back to a calm, straight trajectory.
We hit Beeline Highway and turned north. The full brunt of the hurricane-like winds was now upon us. Not only were the winds way more than what had been predicted, but they were also blowing from the opposite direction. Yippee. Headwind for 17 miles going uphill in 95-degree heat. I thought of the old SNL skit where the old guy reminisces on his childhood: “We used to walk 3 miles uphill in the snow to school—both ways—and eat nails for lunch! And we LIKED it!” I kept saying that to myself—95 degrees with a headwind, uphill—and I LOVED it! (Not really but its fun to pretend). I asked a fellow cyclist, “This is windy, right?”
“I hope so,” she replied with a weak smile.
“Good,” I said, somewhat relieved that we had officially agreed it was windy. At least my suffering was somewhat justified. I would later learn the winds that day were 20-30 mph.
I hit the turn-around and was in complete bliss heading back on a gradual descent with an angry tailwind at my back. I was coasting in my biggest gear at 30 mph, which I thought was kind of wasteful. Couldn’t it be easier going out, and then a little spinning on the return? My pleas fell on deaf ears, yet again, to the Element Gods. At least, it was a good opportunity to recover, drink, and take in calories. Every now and then, a wicked crosswind would knock me off guard, infuriating me. “This is ridiculous! C’mon!” I retorted, which produced several curious glances from other cyclists.
--at the end of the 1st lap and still in fairly good spirits
The heat began to rise exponentially, and the winds had not died down. Fatigue and nagging anxiety began to eat away at me. My feet and head began to swell and throb with each pedal stroke. My gut became bloated and I was plagued with building nausea. Tiny cramps shot through my calves. Having suffered from heat stroke before, I recognized the warning signs. My body was overheating, like a dry radiator and was beginning to shut down. I popped a Gas-X for the bloating to continue to force down the calories and liquids I so desperately needed. Then, I started hitting the salt tablets, even though my custom sports drink (InfinIT) already had all my predicted electrolytes added. Minutes later, my calf cramps subsided and stomach settled down. Normally, I never cramp. In addition, I have a freakishly low sweat rate. This apparently meant nada in the 7th ring of hell out on Beeline Highway that day.
Every 10 minutes, I forced myself to take a shot of my InfinIT and 2 shots of water from my aero bottle. I chased this with a salt tablet 5 minutes later (4 an hour). For the bike alone, I ended up drinking 24 ounces of fluid an hour (instead of my usual 13), 4000 total mg of sodium, and 2500 total calories (slightly aggressive to buffer me for the run; I was advised to consume ~250 cals/hr). Even though it was absolute torture getting it all down, it totally saved me.
The swelling in my head and feet continued, and I felt increasingly nauseous. When I reached the 10-minute mark, drinking the prescribed shot of InfinIT was abject misery. The hot, sickly sweet solution tasted like acrid bile. I would soft pedal for 3 minutes. 3 minutes, I told myself. Then you’ll feel better. Incredibly, when I looked at my watch 3 minutes later, my stomach had calmed down, and I would pedal in absolute bliss and peace for the next 6 minutes. At 9 minutes, I began to dread my upcoming force-feeding in horror for the next 60 seconds. Sometimes, I just couldn’t do it, and the 10 minute mark elapsed without action. Okay. 15 minutes. I’ll do it in 15, I bargained. Upon which, I felt even worse minute-by-minute. My body clearly demanded the salt and fluid. It was better to be miserable for 3 minutes out of every 10 then to risk further deterioration, misery and wretchedness.
Somehow I reached Special Needs. The halfway point. My mood brightened. A volunteer rushed out with my bag. I hopped off my bike and told him to relax. I was eager for the chance to stop and cool down my body. I readjusted my shoes to relieve my swollen feet for the 2nd time. They felt like puffy sausages. I found my cooler inside my bag with my 2 fresh bottles of InfinIT, still frozen. Oh, joy, happy, happy day. It was a little oasis in the barren desert. The highlight of my day. I had somehow been able to consume the previous 2 bottles, and happily exchanged my empty hot ones for the 2 fresh frozen ones. I also discovered a PB&J, cut into fourths in my cooler. I ate a square. The solid food felt wonderfully comforting in my sloshy tummy. Without a 2nd thought, I grabbed the industrial ice packs from the cooler and stuffed them in my sports bra, next to my furiously beating heart, overheating in a futile attempt to cool my body. It was pure and simple bliss. I think I heard angels singing. The light returned to my eyes. I felt like I was protected in an air-conditioned bubble while the desert inferno raged around me.
I got back on the bike and felt absolutely wonderful. My bottles thawed within minutes. Within 20, they were as hot as the ambient air temperature. Within an hour, my ice packs had completely thawed. I was in incredulous. Those packs are designed to keep chemicals frozen during shipping 24 hours. I’ve never experienced them heating up that quickly before. However, that next hour was pure and simple heaven. Sometimes, you have to experience the lowest of lows to be able to appreciate the little things in life. Like PB&Js and ice packs. I’d never been so happy.
One ceases to recognize the significance of mountain peaks if they are not viewed occasionally from the deepest valleys.
--- Dr. Al Lorin
As I turned down the Mill Bridge back in town at the end of my 3rd lap, I forced myself to smile for my Dad and Brent. I didn’t need anyone else worrying about me that day. I was worried enough. I didn’t want them to know how much pain I was in. I figured if I could pretend I felt good, if I could fake it just a little, maybe it would transcend into reality. In addition, back in town, next to the roaring, energizing crowds and by the delightfully cool, refreshing breeze coming off the lake over the bridge, I felt better than I had all day. I sat up and breathed deeply, taking it in, relishing in the brief respite. For just a few wonderful minutes, I felt no pain.
--Wearing a brave smile for my Dad. Never mind how I feel, at least I look good!
Then I realized I had to go back out there. Please, no. Don’t send me back out there again. You don’t know how bad it is, I thought. A sense of impending doom like a dark, shadeless cloud hung over me. The last time. This is the last time I have to do this. This became my mantra. I put my head down with newfound resolve and headed back out to the front lines for my 3rd and final time.
--the loneliness of the empty transition area as we suffer on Beeline Highway.
My water bottles were now the same hot, torrid temperatures as the air and equally disgusting to drink. I had no choice. My life-saving ice packs had completely thawed too, rendering them useless. If the mercury was 95-degrees that day, it must have been at least 10 degrees hotter out on Beeline Highway in the midst of the desert, on the black, heat-loving pavement. I thought Mill Ave Bridge had felt cool and refreshing. My Dad thought otherwise; he retreated to his hotel for an ice bath during my 3rd lap.
As I continued to deteriorate from the heat despite the continual consumption of fluid and salt, I forced myself to slow my pace even further. Previous words of wisdom from my nutritionist replayed in my head:
On race day, if the mercury rises above 90, it will be important to taper back pace as means to mute some of the heat generated purely based on your race day effort as physiologically, it is impossible to keep up with sweat losses when the heat is on. Be mindful of symptoms and remember that safety and your health is always #1.
This was no longer a race. It was a mission. My vision quest. I was spinning. Soft pedaling. Any temptation for negative thoughts about my snail-like pace failed to register. I simply didn’t care. Today was just not the day. My only goal was to calm down my stomach and survive the bike. I knew if I puked, I would pretty much have to shut it down. With the extreme heat, I simply couldn’t afford to lose that much fluid, especially after I had suffered so much to get it all down. No way. Whatever I needed to do to ensure I was still in this thing, that I could still cross the finish line hours down the road, that was what I was going to do. I was still making forward progress and that was all that mattered.
Mind is everything; muscle [mere] pieces of rubber. All that I am, I am because of my mind.
I reached the next aid station. And stopped. Got off my bike. I was stopping at all the aid stations now. I felt so nauseous—I knew I was overheating. I was already pedaling as slowly as I could manage on the evil black road, and it wasn’t enough. I doused myself in water—over my head, through the vents of my helmet, and down my back until my jersey was soaked. The water at the aid stations was as hot as the air—they had run out of ice. It didn’t matter. It still felt good to be wet. I could hear my heart pounding furiously, throbbing in my head like a scared hummingbird. I wasn’t exerting myself; I wasn’t breathing hard. My sky-high heart-rate was a desperate attempt to cool my core temperature. Within minutes, I felt cooler. I used this opportunity to take in more InfinIT, water, and salt tabs. Doused myself in more water. Then, feeling somewhat relieved and somewhat cooled down, the nausea having momentarily subsided, I got back on the bike and continued on my way. I only stopped for a few minutes, fully aware that if I truly stopped to rest, it would be very difficult to get back on the bike. I kept the promise of the finish line in my head to keep me focused. I never stopped moving, never let my muscles stiffen.
Back on the bike, I dried within 10 minutes and was utterly miserable thereafter. I focused on making it to the next aid station. That was all that mattered. Everything was eerily still and ominous. The wind had suddenly died down. I thought this would make me happy. Unfortunately, this only exacerbated the heat, and the temps continued to rise. I felt even sicker. Waves of heat rose from the black pavement like iridescent plumes of oil. I watched the heat melt deep cracks in the rubber bands securing my aero bottle to the bars, wondering at what point they would snap. A policeman popped his hood, fanning smoke pouring out of the overheated engine as I passed. Okay. It was officially hot. I was now crawling at 10 mph, and the next aid station, 10 miles away, took an eternity to reach. It would take me an hour to get there—the longest hour of my life.
--Suffering on Beeline Highway, complete with swollen feet and puffy face.
Earlier I had naively thought, At least it won’t be windy. This was the most ridiculous statement I’ve ever made. I had both extremes that day from 30 mph winds to 95-degree heat. I get to choose which one is worse. I vote for heat. Give me wind, wind, please, God, wind any day over that kind of unearthly heat. Once the winds, albeit hot winds, died down, I had absolutely no relief from the stifling, suffocating heat, which continued to rise precipitously. At least in wind, you can still put your head down and go to work. In heat, your body simply begins to shut down. No one’s ever died of wind stroke.
At some point, my body went numb and my mind went blank. I was without thought. I had checked out and was somewhere else, far, far away. Miles passed without registering on my mental radar. Every 10 minutes, I would wearily and reluctantly check back in for a forced feeding. Are we there yet? No? Shit! And I would check out again.
The next aid station appeared like a heavenly oasis deep within the fiery inferno, bringing a glimmer of happiness and hope to my face. I cried out for water and was met with looks of confusion from the empty-handed volunteers. Long ago, the aid stations had run out of ice and had been delivering warm water. Now, they were running out of water. There was no way I could make it to the next station. I couldn’t afford to waste any energy on such useless emotions as frustration or anger. Without hesitation, I rode forward to the trash pile, hopped off the bike, and dug through the tossed bottles on the side of the road until I found several half-empty (excuse me, half-full) water bottles. Without a second thought, I filled my aero bottle, drank the rest, and dumped several more ounces of water on my head and down my jersey. This was a matter of survival. Precious water would ensure me reaching the finish line. If I became sick from contaminated bottles, I wouldn’t experience symptoms until several days after the finish. Life after the finish wasn’t in my vocabulary at the moment. Crossing the finish line consumed me. That water could have contained the Ebola virus, and I would have gulped it down, knowing I could still cross the finish line before dying 72 hours later.
I somehow finally reached the turn-around on the final lap. It’s all downhill from here, I told myself. A glimmer of hope rose in my chest. I began realizing I could make it. This fueled me forward. Somehow, I finally reached T2 and felt completely elated. I had made it. I had survived.
--I'm going to make it! Almost done.
A volunteer asked how I was doing. “Much better!” I explained, ripping off my bike shoes to relieve my swollen feet. I was just happy to be off the goddamn bike. I proceeded to the changing tent where wounded and fallen athletes lay strewn about. Grimaces of pain and dread were cemented on their faces. The scene was not pretty. However, the tent was air conditioned, and a volunteer handed me a cup of ice water. As I cooled off, happiness settled in. My day was getting better by the minute. I deliberately and efficiently changed into my running gear, taking care not to rest for too long, while at the same time, allowing my body to take time to cool down from the heat. I rejoiced (again) when I reached into the cooler so expertly placed into my running gear bag to find more frozen ice packs and chilled Fuel Belt bottles, filled with more InfinIT. I knew I could force down the InfinIT if it was cold. I stuffed the ice packs into my sports bra and shoved the chilled bottles into my belt, which delightfully cooled my chest and waist. I was ready for my run. Emerging from the tent, 3 volunteers lay in wait for me, armed with large tubes of sunblock. I held my arms out to my sides, allowing them to simultaneously slather on thick layers of the creamy substance. Because I had diligently been applying sunblock all day, the desert heat had only browned but not burned my skin. If I had been a chicken roasting in the oven, I would have been delicious.
--Volunteers applying sunblock as I prepare for the run.
I trotted across the T2 timing mat and quickly settled into an easy, rhythmic run. I couldn’t believe how good I felt, especially considering I had felt like death 10 minutes ago. Because I had been forced to spin so conservatively on the bike, my legs were fresh and eager. In addition, since I had diligently forced down all my calories, fluids, and electrolytes, my body was quickly recovering from the heat. Covered in ice packs, I felt delightfully cool, despite the continual rising temps in the late afternoon heat. The white sidewalks by the refreshing Tempe Town Lake felt considerably cooler than the black pavement out on Beeline Highway. I felt good. I was running. Oh yeah. Running’s my favorite! This excited me, and I ran onward.
--Heading out of T2 and feeling pretty good.
The aid stations appeared suddenly out of nowhere. They popped up so quickly. After waiting an eternity on the bike between aid stations, I wasn’t prepared. The miles simply flew by. There was so much to see. I was thoroughly entertained. I walked the aid stations, not rushed but efficient in my actions. I took a swig of InfinIT from my Fuel Belt, downed a cup of water at the aid station, and swapped my old sponges for fresh ice-cold ones, under my hat, down my back, down my chest. My singlet was bulging with ice and sponges. (Later my mom asked why my shirt always looked so stuffed. When I told her all it was holding, she laughed, “If we opened that jersey up, I bet we would have found Hoffa!”) Passerbys and volunteers hosed me down with water. Cold water. It felt wonderful. I was well-hydrated, dripping wet, and cool.
--All smiles on my 1st lap, cool as a cucumber with sponges and ice (note the bulging singlet and lumpy visor.
Other runners were not so lucky. They had been reduced to a slow, feeble walk, wearing expressionless masks with glassy, blank eyes. It had become a zombie death march. I tried not to look, afraid to assume any of their pain. Some poor souls had forgotten to apply sunblock—their skin a crackling, blistering crimson. One guy had a thick yellow goo oozing down his shoulder. I stared in disbelief, slowly realizing it was pus from a burst blister. His skin was covered in 3rd degree burns. I shuddered and turned away in horror, quickly running by.
As I continued deeper into the war zone, the scene became increasingly grim. The course offered very little shade. Rare patches of shade were sparsely offered by a sickly shrub, a tiny wall, a lamppost, a cactus. As the shadows grew longer in the late afternoon, the body count rose exponentially. Very fit, muscular young athletes, finally succumbing to the heat, sought out these small patches of relief and lay down, just for a moment, unable to rise again. I tried not to look, tried not to be afraid by the rising numbers of fallen corpses. Every 10 minutes, an ATV drove by to cart off the carnage. I shuddered and drank more water.
--Still running (center with ponytail). Some of us are walking. No matter as long as we're still moving forward.
The animals were grazing, procuring their final meal before settling down for the night. Sparrows flitted from the brush and large blackbirds began roosting noisily in the treetops. I sidestepped a quickly moving snake, hurriedly slithering across the sidewalk to avoid trampling feet. Rabbits flirted with each other in the grass. A jackrabbit sprinted towards the riverbanks. A mile down the road, I sidestepped a slowly hopping toad, lazily making his way across the path.
I reached Special Needs. Had it already been 13.1 miles? I had successfully emptied 2 bottles of InfinIT. I replaced them with 2 fresh ones and moved on. I tried in vain to drink from them but realized after forcing it down for 12 hours, I simply couldn’t do it anymore. I had somehow gotten down 3200 calories of InfinIT and a PB&J for 3600 total calories. I had been SO good. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I flat out refused. I didn’t care. A nagging pang of anxietey tugged at me. Afterall, I still had a half marathon to go.
--Running for soup and Coke.
I reached the next aid station. Caught a glimpse of pretzels. Pretzels! I had the weirdest urge for pretzels. Plus, pretzels were salty. Yippee! I stuffed a handful in my mouth. Then I saw grapes. Oh, my God, grapes! They were delicious. My body was having the oddest cravings. A banana? Yes, I think I’ll take one of those too. I know, I know. Nothing new on race day. Apparently, except during an Ironman. In an Ironman, whatever you’ve practiced in training becomes disgusting at some point. After 127 miles, nothing tastes good anymore. The aid stations seemed to know this and were fully stocked. It was like a drive-through banquet. My body seemed to instinctively know what it wanted. I grabbed whatever looked good. After the irresistible pretzels, I had to try some Coke to wash it down. Afterall, Coke goes so well with pretzels! I had never tried Coke before and was skeptical. I decided to experiment, took a small shot and waited to see what would happen. And that was when I discovered the magical healing properties of the amazing elixir, Coca Cola. It was as if new life had been breathed into me. Coke, not Ford, should be the official sponsor of Ironman. My stomach settled, and I had a resurgence of energy. I felt no pain, and my legs were fresh and ready. I bounded off to the next aid station. And that’s when I discovered chicken broth….soothing, warm, miraculous chicken broth. Sopa! I had calories. I had fluid. I had electrolytes. And a little caffeine from the Coke. I was good to go! I felt indescribably amazing.
“Go get ‘em girl!” a fellow athlete urged as I ran by.
“I’m just running for Coke and soup!” I called back. I couldn’t wait to get to the next aid station. I was running with an unbridled enthusiasm for my newly discovered passion: Coke and soup. I couldn’t wait to get some more. I needed my fix. I was addicted. Between the pretzels, Coke, and soup, I felt like I could have run 20 more miles.
I crossed Scottsdale Road Bridge at the end of the 2nd lap just as the sun set. The mountains to the west were bathed in a rosy, golden wash. The lake lay quiet and dark beneath the bridge. It was devastatingly beautiful and gave me renewed strength.
--Still running as the sun begins to set.
I began the 3rd lap and felt renewed enthusiasm. The guy in front of me felt it too. He took off running at a good clip, hooting and hollering. “The 3rd lap is the best because it’s the last!” His energy was infectious. I smiled in agreement and picked up my pace too, albeit not as aggressively. Night had fallen and everything was engulfed in a blanket of darkness. A volunteer handed me a purple glowstick halo, which I placed on my head. Like a little kid with a new toy, I was ecstatic to get my glowstick. My own glowstick! I must be doing an Ironman! Ah, the simple things.
As I passed each aid station, I thanked the volunteers. It would be the last time I saw them. I actually got a little choked up. The volunteers had been amazing. Completing an Ironman would be impossible without their support. Cars honked their horns as they drove past, urging us on. They shouted, “You’re going to be an Ironman!” The spectators had also been invaluable, supporting us with undying enthusiasm throughout the day and anesthetizing the pain I had endured throughout countless miles. I tried to enjoy every detail of the last lap. My first Ironman journey was nearing its end. I read all the signs loved ones had planted in the grass for their athletes for the final time.
“Yes you can!”
“Be an Ironman today!”
“How many times have you been here today?”
“3!” I yelled at it as I ran past (I had given it the finger on the first lap).
I ran over the Mill Ave Bridge. The lights lining the railings glowed like lanterns beaded on a string. A volunteer handed me soup at the next aid station. “Good job, Rachel,” he said. I looked at him, confused. Do I know this person? How did he get all the way out here? Oh, duh. I felt foolish. I had forgotten my name was printed on my bib number. I was getting delightfully delirious. A runner in front of me stopped briefly to give her grandmother a huge hug and a kiss. Tears came to my eyes. I found myself running even faster, fueled by this gesture of unconditional love. My steps flew over the ground.
Relaxed and comfortable, I began to zone out, lost in my own rhythm. It wasn’t the checked-out feeling I had incurred during the torturous bike ride but a peaceful meditation like a baby rocked to sleep by a singing mother. I lost track of time, lost track of miles. I wasn’t there. I had no idea where I was, how long I had been running, how much farther I had to go, and I didn’t care. I was running in a parallel universe where anything could happen. I was drinking in the scenery, enjoying the unbridled enthusiasm and encouragement of the spectators, lost in the moment. I wanted to stay there, in that moment, forever. I didn’t want it to ever end.
--Lost in the rhythm of my foosteps, running after dark.
The Final 6 Miles:
I hit mile 20 and rejoiced. This was the furthest I had ever run before. The breaking point. I had been told the last 6 miles of a marathon is where the real race begins. I kept waiting to hit the wall. To fall flat on my face. It never happened. I felt fantastic.
It was dark, and I suddenly remembered that I love running at night. I couldn’t see my feet in front of me or the ground beneath me. I could only hear the soft thud, thud of my footsteps like a never-ending metronome. My legs and body were completely numb. I felt like I was floating, being carried along by some invisible, sleek steed. I looked up at the sky as I ran out of Papago Park. Everything was dark and the sky was vast and brilliant. Glittering stars filled every expanse, giving the sensation that the heavens were alive and undulating. The new moon shone like a crisp, luminescent smile. Deep purple plumes of the Milky Way hung in the backdrop like distant smoke. We all slowed to a walk with our heads tilted back and eyes cast skyward, captivated by the view. I stared in disbelief, completely unprepared for something so beautiful this late in the race. I had expected to be in much more pain and suffering at this point.
At mile 22, I realized I wasn’t going to bonk. I started picking up the pace. Finally, at mile 23, I realized I only had a 5K to go. I knew, no matter what, I could run a 5K. I was going to finish this thing. I started running faster. I breezed by the aid stations now, thanking them as I whizzed by. I no longer needed their help. Feeling good never felt so good, and it snowballed. My endorphin levels were sky high. My legs were numb, my thoughts were soft, and I was flying. Two spectators yelled, “You look GREAT! We tell everyone that but with you, we really mean it!”
I ran under Mill Ave Bridge and began trembling with excitement. I saw the sign pointing towards the finish. Spectators were screaming and jumping up and down. “You’re going to do it! You are SO close! Only 200 meters! You’re going to be an Ironman!” I was going to do it. This was it. Let’s go be an Ironman, I said to myself. The adrenaline surged through my veins, trying to fuel my week and feeble body, making me feel wobbly. I did the only thing I could think of—I ran faster.
--Sprinting down the chute. I'm going to do it!
--Faster than a speeding bullet! It's a plane, a train, no, it's Rachel!
I reached the chute and began to sprint. I just couldn’t hold it in any longer. Surrounded by thunderous cheering, I was excited and pumped, despite my exhausted state. I was flying. My feet never touched the ground. Everyone was screaming my name. I slapped a string of hands held out down the chute, delivering a sea of high-fives.
--Up on the flat screen, giving everyone high-fives down the chute.
I reached the finish line and surged through the tape, held up by 2 smiling volunteers. Mike Reily’s voice boomed over the loudspeakers, “Rachel Richards, you are now an Ironman!” I actually don’t remember him saying this but I was assured later by many witnesses that he did. The finish was a blur of bright lights, cheering and unbridled, exuberant ecstasy. I had done it. I had become an Ironman.
--I did it! I'm an Ironman!
--And here I am, standing on the other side of the finish line, pinching myself and wondering, "How did I get here?"
The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
--Standing with my dad after crossing the finish, tired and happy. I couldn't have done it without you, Dad!
--me and Brent after crossing the finish line. He was out there all day, cheering me on and taking pictures. I learned you need a good, personal support crew to do an Ironman.
--Proudly displaying my M-Dot the next day. I'm recovering fairly well, considering the tough conditions.