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Ironman Arizona: The Hard-Earned Red Carpet

Geoffrey Simpson, Ironman Arizona Finisher


Was it hard? Yes.
Was it worth it? Yes.

During the many training rides, runs, and swims, I would often think to myself, “Will I remember this during the race?” There were hundreds of workouts. We started diligently after competing in the Ironman Texas 70.3 (70.3 is considered a half Ironman, with each component being half the distance of a “full” Ironman). Actually, I started diligently after recovering from a Vasectomy, which was strategically timed to be after Texas and before training began.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that I started from scratch, and a six-and-a-half-hour (6:34:21 to be exact) half Ironman is nothing to sneeze at. A few days before the surgery, I also decided to see how fast my running had gotten, and I set a PR (personal record) in a 5K of 23 minutes 29 seconds, a record that had stood since 2009 (9 years) and I bested it by 26 seconds.

In the beginning of my running “career” I started a couch to 5K program with Fleet Feet Tulsa. I had always been athletic, and I had always had a sport to play (baseball, basketball, softball), but running had not ever been one of those sports. For reasons that escape me now, I thought running would be fun. It was probably the feeling of crossing that finish line, a feeling that still keeps me going to this day. I didn’t stop at the 5K. I progressed up to a half-marathon fairly easily. (When the most you have ever ran was a 5 mile Turkey Trot, 13.1 miles is a heck of a long way, so when I say “easily”, I don’t actually mean “easily”).

What’s next? Peer pressure is strong in the running community, and I knew that I had to throw my guts against the wall to see if mine could hold up to the 26.2 mile challenge as well. I trained, once again with Fleet Feet Tulsa. My goal race was the Little Rock Marathon, a race
notorious for their larger-than-life medals. It’s funny that I think about my Ironman training so much now, and how I don’t really remember much of my training for my first marathon. To make a short story even shorter, I finished my first marathon, and the medal they hung around my neck made my neck hurt it was so heavy. And guess what, I finished my second marathon, and my third marathon, and my fourth marathon, etc. You get the picture. Fast forward to marathon number 23, and I still love the marathon distance.

I have had the great privilege of helping others to finish their first marathons, including one of my closest friends, Steven Copley. I also got to do some of my long training runs with Steven leading up to his first marathon, and seeing the challenge through a first timers eyes gets me excited just thinking about it. The strongest of us know that to be strong, we must challenge ourselves, and the only way to get stronger is to take on bigger challenges.

23 marathons? Technically it is 18 marathons and 5 ultra-marathons. Is that a lot? Maybe. It all depends on who you hang around with. My circle of friends are quite accomplished in their own rights. My wife has done back-to-back marathons, one on Saturday, and one on Sunday. My housekeeper has run 80+ marathons and has kept her Boston qualifying time going for several years in a row. Outside of my circle of friends, I’m crazy for doing that many marathons...heck, I’m crazy for running a single marathon.

SeminoleHS

I know I’m an introvert. I enjoy being alone. Luckily I found the perfect woman for me, and my wife and I enjoy being alone together. Despite this, there is no better support system than going to an Ironman with a dozen of your closest Triathlon friends halfway across the country, staying in the same house, and competing in the same event. We all trained, we all sacrificed, we all wanted this. Some of us were already Ironman athletes, most of us were going for our first. If
the weekend did not involve 140.6 miles of endurance racing, it would have still been a memorable weekend of friendship (and it is likely there would have been more alcohol consumed).

Getting to Arizona was nothing special. You get in a vehicle and drive west until it warms up enough that you are ok with getting out of the vehicle without a coat or light jacket. We all got there without incident. The expo was the usual, and the weather was cooperating so that it was all outside, something that other geographic locations can not take for granted. Shirts were bought, bikes checked in, bags dropped. Nerves getting nervous.

SeminoleHS

The morning of the race we all were up nice and early. Already there was talk about one of our clan being injured from sleeping on a shoulder wrong, and the possibility of not starting. We are all at different speeds, and none of us were planning on racing together, but we were all racing “together”. Each had their own nutrition plan for the pre-race, mine consisted of a cliff bar and some Precision Hydration. Others had breakfast burritos and other combinations of performance beverages. Heading to the race was easy, parking was easy, and dropping our special needs bags was easy. Standing in the swim corrals, waiting for the cannon to fire, was easy. Getting into the cold water was not so easy, but the race had to start sometime.

Have you ever heard of something that sounds like an excellent, intelligent, well thought out idea, and then you do it, and it completely backfires on you?

Imagine a chilly swim, maybe around 61 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s not hypothermia level, but it is certainly not something you would sit in willingly to relax with a cold beverage. The water temperature was well within the wetsuit legal range, and I didn’t see anyone not wearing one. Rumors are that one person did it without a wetsuit, but I haven’t seen any photographic evidence. In addition to the wetsuit, I had my triathlon kit on under it, swim cap, and goggles. Now, here is where the brilliance comes in: if one swim cap is warm, then two is warmer, and put the goggles on over the first and under the second so they won’t get knocked off if I get hit/kicked in the head.

With great trepidation, I entered the chilly water and began the boxing match/swim. It was unlike anything I had done before, and the stories are true, people will swim over you, and you will swim over other people. You can not avoid others, you just deal with the contact. Everything was good for a little bit, but then the outer swim cap started slipping up off of my head. Not a big deal, but while it was slipping, it was pulling the goggle straps ever so slightly, and with the
strap movement, it was loosening the seal between the goggles and around my eyes, letting in a little bit of the not-crystal clear lake water. If the cap had stopped moving, I would have kept going and I would have dealt with the water, and maybe just close my left eye, since that is the one that was leaking. It didn’t get better. It got worse. I stopped to let the water out of my goggles. I turned to face the oncoming swimmer traffic and actively moved out of the other swimmers way while I put the goggles back on and the outer swim cap back on.

The swim consists of 2.4 miles in a not quite full clockwise circle in Tempe lake (a reservoir). As of now, I was still less than half-way, because the buoys were still yellow (yellow for first half, and orange on the second half). The swim cap did not stay in place.

In fact, it started letting water in again at a faster rate than before. My left goggle was completely filled with water and the first swim cap was being pulled out of place as well. I stopped again. I took off the outer swim cap again, I took the goggles off. I adjusted the bottom swim cap. I went to put the goggles back on.

The goggles were gone.

They weren’t in my hand. The visibility in the lake was less than one foot. My goggles were really gone, not just gone, but gone as in I will never see them again in my life. I am less than 1.2 miles into a 2.4 mile swim in murky, cold, water, and I have no goggles. I did what I had to do, I started swimming again. That’s all I could do, quitting was not an option. Every few strokes I would keep my head out of the water for a little bit until I could open my eyes and sight my swim path. Rinse and repeat….just keep swimming.

SeminoleHS

Coming out of the water was not necessarily a relief. I enjoy the swim, and it was the most relaxing part of the day, despite the lack of goggles. Going around the turns and coming out of the water was a battle royale, with people swimming on top of anyone who was in their way, all with the goal of getting out of the water. Coming out was tricky, with concrete stairs hidden in the water. I tripped, but only managed to make a small splash instead of actually falling.

The path to T1 was long. Grabbing my bike bag was easy, and the volunteers were second to none. I put on a long sleeve cycling jersey over my tri-kit, both because I already had everything in the jersey pocket, and more importantly, it provides protection against the sun for my one hundred twelve mile journey in the Arizona sun. Now begins the longest event of the day for me, the bike.

I left transition, and I started the long journey. The three loop course didn’t feel that long when we drove it in a car, and it was fairly flat. Starting the first loop (an out and back, not a true “loop”) the wind was coming right towards me on the long stretch of the Beeline Highway. The turnaround is close to the highest point of the course, so making that turn and going downhill with a tailwind was like catching a wave, it felt great to crank out a 30 mph descent back into
town. The second and third loops were mostly the same. I stopped about half-way and refilled my bottles and grabbed my PB&J. It was about lunch time, and it was a welcome change from the Infinite/Precision Hydration mix. I was happy to get back to T2 in about seven hours, and ecstatic to hand my bike off to a volunteer so I wouldn't have to see that pain machine for the rest of the day.

Another good transition, nothing too exciting happened. I stripped the cycling jersey off, threw on my running shoes, wrapped my running pack around my waist, and got sunscreen applied on my way out of transition. I was off and running, literally. My legs felt great as I settled into the first few miles. For the run, I had gone with a double concentration of Tailwind and Precision Hydration 1500 in my bottle. The plan was to take a shot of my nutrition before an aid station, and then wash it down with water from the aid station. This worked out great several weeks before on a half marathon training run. I’m not sure if it was the concentrated mixture, or the 10 hours of endurance so far that day, but something happened to my stomach, and it was not
happy.

You know that feeling you get right before you puke? Yeah, I got that feeling at about mile 5, and it was not going away. The feeling would get strong the faster I went, so at this point, running was out of the question. It was a foreign feeling to me during a run, this had never
happened. Worst case scenario now was that I would have to walk the rest, which would still get me an Ironman finish. I thought about making myself throw up, and seeing someone else throwing up along the run was not helping things, but I decided to tough it out. I had another PB&J waiting for me in my run special needs bag at about mile 13. I made it to the bag, and I started nibbling at the sandwich. I was able to get it all down within a mile, and in a couple of more miles, my stomach was getting back to normal. It was time to put some miles under my feet at a better pace now.

The last part of the run was mostly a blur. It was dark, and the temperature with the sun down was getting close to my optimal running temperature. My feet had blisters, but I was about to finish
my first Ironman. I would pick up the pace for a while and then walk some when the blisters starting hurting more or I just needed a break. I was surrounded by fellow athletes at the same points in their run, all knowing we are all going to cross that finish line.

There is no victory lap in an Ironman, but the last mile feels just as good. You can hear Mike Riley announcing the finishers as they cross the line, and you know that your name will be on his lips in just a matter of minutes. Despite being able to run, most of us were walking that last mile. I was taking it in, thinking about the hours and hours of training over the past year.I was thinking about my wife and my friends who were taking on the Ironman challenge with me. The finish line was not a dream anymore.

Turning the last corner, stepping onto the red carpet, lights blaring me in the face, the music loud, the crowd cheering, Mike Riley yelling my name. Those moments will stay with me forever. Every run, every swim, every bike ride, every sacrifice, the long hours, the pain, the injuries, the MRI, the hunger, the laundry….it was all worth it.

I am an Ironman.

SeminoleHS


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