I went to St George last weekend hoping to learn some things. The lessons ended up being slightly different than I thought they would be, but it was a learning experience just the same. Let me just say, I am so happy I went to this race. I had my slowest finishing time by an hour and the course chewed me up and spit me out – or rather, tossed me around and blew me sideways – but I am a better athlete because of it. I had my proudest Ironman finish and had a day full of moments that will not soon be forgotten.
The Decision to Race
“I didn’t know you were doing St George.” I heard this a lot last week. It’s because I wasn’t. I never planned on doing this race, although Mark had first suggested it over spring break in March after I had a particularly good run workout. Instead, I was supposed to run the Colorado Marathon on Sunday, which was going to be my first “stand alone” marathon in two and a half years. I was going to try to run a good time to get back to my roots and feel like a runner again. 26.2 miles without walking the aid stations and shuffling along. I started to taper for that race and then the announcement came from WTC that this would be the last Ironman St George. The race had failed to sell out and they were going to turn it into a 70.3 going forward. Mark raised the issue again, telling me that I should go there and see what I could do. There would be almost the same number of Kona slots at IMSG as Wisconsin, which I’m registered for, but about 1000 fewer athletes. It was supposed to be hot, which is good for me, and the water was supposed to be unusually warm, which is also good for me. I thought Sonja would laugh, but she liked the idea, too.
I had never considered going to IMSG before because I hate really cold water and I am not the strongest climber on the bike. The IMSG bike course was considered very challenging. With the first variable removed, it was starting to seem like a good idea. I was already planning to run a marathon that weekend – why not just tack on the swim and the bike and see what happens? I had been doing long swims, so I wasn’t worried about that part, but the bike had me a little concerned. I had only done two rides over 5 hours and one of those was back in February. I realized I might be a teeny bit unprepared for the bike course, but Ironman is a long, unpredictable race, and I was willing to give it a go and see where I stood.
I was heading to the race by myself, but Sonja had several other athletes racing, so I knew I wouldn’t be alone. I ended up adopting Audra, her husband Clint and their friend Aaron as my “race family” and they provided great company and support leading up to the race. Audra and Aaron were both first-timers, but they both seemed more relaxed than I was. Audra was vying for a Kona slot in her AG and I was excited to see how she was going to race.
I had some nervousness about the race and the course having only signed up four days before the race, but those feelings were mixed with a relaxed attitude that I usually don’t bring to these events. I hadn’t planned my whole season around this race. I didn’t have a lot of time or money invested in it – I drove to Utah by myself to keep the costs and chaos factor to a minimum. I didn’t have a lot to lose.
After I checked my bike on Friday, I went for a little swim to check the water temperature and demo Sonja’s TYR Freak of Nature, which she had graciously lent me for the race. I was relieved to feel that the water was pretty comfortable – it was 63 degrees. I was a little nervous about the wind. It was blowing in the afternoon, but everyone I chatted with about it assured me that the forecast for Saturday was for calmer winds – 7-10 mph. Everyone was convinced that the weather was shaping up to be perfect.
On race morning, I met Audra and Aaron in the hotel lobby and we took the van to the shuttle that would take us to Sand Hollow. While walking to the shuttle, I spotted James (the “Iron Cowboy”), another athlete coached by Sonja. I was excited to run into him because I had been following his quest to complete 30 Ironmans in one year – a world record. On the shuttle, I sat in front of James and we talked about racing and the day ahead. He was excited because it was his 7th Ironman this season and he said the weather was going to be perfect. This was the third year of IMSG and the first year had been cold, last year had been hot, and this was going to be a Goldilocks year – it was going to be just right.
As I was going about my race morning preparations, I ran into Emily, another one of Sonja’s athletes who lives near me in Colorado. Emily is an experienced Ironman athlete and this was her 11th Ironman. It was great to see a familiar face and we decided to line up in the water together. Feeling confident with my swimming recently – especially wearing the Freak – I decided I was going to swim the inside buoy line. Mark had taken this line in Canada and had assured me it was the way to go. The water felt calm. As we treaded water waiting for the start, a guy looked behind us and commented on the cloud of red dust in the distance. “Look at the wind,” he said. I kind of laughed and told him I was going to focus on one thing at a time, and right now, I was thinking about swimming 2.4 miles.
Right before the cannon went off, the announcer said “Remember, all you can control today is your attitude.” And with that, we were off.
There was some jostling at the start, but for the most part, I was pleased with how I had seeded myself and the line I had picked. I was swimming on feet and passing some people and trying to maintain a solid effort. Things were going pretty well. As we neared the first turn buoy, I noticed that I was starting to get tossed around a bit. I heard a motor underwater so I figured a boat had just passed by. Then the waves kept coming and I was reminded of Ironman Canada, where the water started to churn near the buoy from the force of all of the swimmers turning. “Maybe that was what was happening,” I thought. I got around the buoy and was immediately smacked from the right side by huge waves. Spray was coming off the tops of the waves and it felt like it was raining. People were shouting to kayakers and asking which way to go. The buoys were no longer visible. I saw a kayaker in the water. My predominant feeling was confusion. “What was happening?” The sky was still sunny but these huge waves had appeared out of nowhere. It was a shock. I can’t really say how big the waves were. I have very little open water swim experience and even less ocean experience, so I don’t know if they were 2 feet or 4 feet. All I know is that they felt similar to the waves in Hawaii when we were out there on a rough day before the race.
I bobbed around for a while trying to calm myself and get oriented. There was a man next to me also bobbing around and I asked him, “Are we going to make it?” “Yes, we’re going to make it,” he assured me. He sounded really confident so I got my head down and started swimming as best I could to the next turn. On the long straightaway, we were swimming directly into the waves. I was alternating breaststroking with a little bit of freestyle. I would see a wave, dive under it, pop my head up for a breath and repeat. I wasn’t wearing a watch, so I had no idea how long this was taking. I started to get concerned I might miss the 2:20 cut-off. The waves weren’t coming in a rhythmic fashion, so I couldn’t time my breathing to coincide with the waves. When I did freestyle, I turned my head towards the sky to get a breath to avoid getting a mouthful of water. Mostly, I tried to stay near other swimmers, but by this time, people were spread out all over the place. I didn’t feel very scared since I knew I could breaststroke all the way back to shore if I needed to. I was more disappointed. I had been excited to see how my swim was coming along and the swim felt like it was going well until the waves kicked up.
I now know what was going on all around me with other swimmers: people were clinging to boats, boats were sinking, rescuers were getting dumped into the water. But at the time, I wasn’t aware of any of that. I was just concerned with getting myself around the course and back to the boat ramp. Finally, I was close to the island and I could see swimmers standing on it. The final red buoy appeared to have drifted and people were swimming everywhere. A woman was yelling from a boat, but I wasn’t close enough to hear her. “She’s telling us that the swim has been cancelled and to swim back to shore,” I thought. I rounded the final buoy and turned towards the shore. Now the waves were pushing me in and the shore was coming close. I reached the ramp and stumbled out of the water. I looked at the clock and saw that the time was in the 1:40s. I didn’t care. I noticed two things. A lot of bikes were still on the racks and it was unbelievably windy.
I ran into the changing tent and two terrific volunteers helped me out of the Freak and into my bike gear. I was shivering and could barely talk because my teeth were chattering so hard. One of the volunteers said, “I bet you weren’t planning on that happening!” Everyone was commenting on how crazy it had been. I was proud I had made it. Two years ago, I would have needed a rescue from the water. Last year I might have made it, but it would have been questionable. Today I had made it through and hadn’t lost my head. I was relieved because I assumed the hardest part of the day was over.