After two disappointing Ironman races in 2015, especially on the run part, I needed a redemption race where I would run just below 4 hours, and finish sub 11 hours.
Not much to do in Tempe, sun is shining, people eat burgers and drink beers along the main street, Ironman village is nicely setup along the canal where we will swim, and next to transition area, and the whole city is talking about the upcoming game from the local team, the Arizona State Dust Devils.
After landing in Phoenix, I “uber” my way to Tempe, pick up my bike, find out my hotel is being renovated and is a sh+t hole, get some groceries at the local Wholefood (Uber again) and stroll downtown in search of the perfect pasta place. I get to try the Normatec recovery boots at the Expo, nice feeling.
Next day is bag and bike check-in, a short swim in the cold canal, a massive pasta lunch while watching a replay of the Ironman Worldchampionship on NBC (first time I had a sports bar actually showing something I cared about !).
Sun is high, beautiful weather for tomorrow. Alarm clock is set for 4.50am.
Race day. Again, Uber to get to transition (and no worries about parking !). Looks surprinsingly very cold, lots of clouds, I decide to leave my tritop dry and put it in my transition bag for after the swim, so that I do not feel too cold once on the bike. Try the potta-potty line, not too long, then head to the start. You can’t get into the water to warm up before the start, so we just watch the pro start, and then it’s our turn. It’s a seeded start as you have to climb down stairs to jump, but it goes quickly. Plouf. Swim is ok, out and back, I reach the half way point in 33mn, but struggle with some choppy water on the way back, clocking 1hr 11mns. Not good.
Long transition to put on dry clothes, sunscreen, arm warmers on wet arms, I decide to go for the socks, get some sunscreen (in retrospect… why ?!?) and off we go.
The first section of 20miles is straight into a strong wind, uphill. I don’t feel very strong and can’t make my power targets. I decide to save energy now to push later, maybe I need to warm up. Second section downhill with wind in the back is of course quite fast, but can’t really push too much either. First loop pace is on track for 5h45mn, much slower than my 5h30mn objective. Second loop: same story at first, winds stronger and … rain. Tough.
I stop 2 minutes mid-way to eat a sandwich from my special needs bag, good choice. Temperature drops, rain stops, I feel very cold and don’t really feel pushing super hard.
Third loop. Rain is strong, I am cold. Friends give rain jackets to some lucky racers, others like me are in tritops and look like fools. It’s quite bad, my shoes are soaked. I am shaking from the cold. The last 10 miles are just horrible. Had I biked faster, I would be on the run but that last half hour was a nightmare. I kind of give up on my bike time, enter T2 after 6 hours, and can’t feel my feet and hands.
Inside the transition tent, volunteers do a great job at helping us. I can’t really use my hands, have to ask for someone to put my socks on. Eight minute transition. Bad.
And the run is on. Takes me a while to warm up, there is still light rain and some athletes have put trash back on top of their singlet. Worse is the feet, but it is what it is. First 5k is on dirt road , so it is a game of avoiding mud puddles and not get the shoes soaked.
There is always this weird feeling during the IM marathon where you have to push yourself mentally to maintain a pace, in the sense that the most exhausting part I feel is to force your brain not to slow down. Constant focus is extremely exhausting actually, and you need to find that sweet spot where you focus on your pace while not thinking about the distance ahead.
The run is very flat and the rain has stopped. Running along the river, I embrace the pain and enjoy the run , and shoot for a 4 hour run. My pace is very smooth until mile 8 or so, after which I find it hard to run less than. 10mn per mile / 10kmh. My other two ironman races this year are catching up with me, as well as my lack if super long rides / runs. But there are no useful excuses in ironman, just the need to push ahead. I finish the first loop in two hours or so, knowing my initial “dream” plan was to finish in the next half hour or so …
As sun sets and I am into my second loop, there is this very warm, exhilariting atmosphere that envelops the course and the aid stations , the “hum-hum” of the electrogen groups lighting up the volunteers that are full of awesome-ness in their dedication to get the athletes to the finish line. I found two older women applying cooling pain reliever gel on runners’ knees and gladly indulge , the pounding is tough and the cold feeling is so enjoyable. And as I turn around for the last 10km, I see the IM village across the river and decide not to stop anymore. Not for time, for the feeling of speed when you run past an aid station while runners walk and hesitate to run again. A bathroom break kills my momentum as I start the last 5 kms and feel this second kick of energy when your brain knows you will make it safely so stops holding you back.
I am a big believer in the role of the brain in athletic performance, and on the deserted back roads of Tempe, Arizona, with 2 miles to go and the lights of the finishline in the background, I once again experience that mysterious feeling, and as I make the final turn, I forget for one minute all the disappointment and 11hr 38mn of suffering to hear for the 14th time “you are an Ironman”.