I was shoulders deep in puke-green muddy waters when a body floated on by, belly-up. Another group of intrepid souls outfitted like Navy SEALs in dark wetsuits clung to the side of a lifeboat nearby. Bodies were everywhere—in the water, out of the water, on the docks, and on a bridge overhead—and the air was filled with primordial screams, raucous cheer, and lots of adrenaline. The stars and stripes flapped above in a steady-but-violent breeze, and with each pass of the wind over the hairs of your skin, you could feel the tension hanging in the air.
Then—BOOM!—a cannon went off. The screaming and shouting was now in full fury as the “Navy SEALs” and other strewn-out bodies flapped their arms wildly in what were previously calm, 68-degree waters. Amidst the pandemonium I felt a hand slap my leg. Then a fist landed squarely on my buttocks. The attack had begun and I was moving forward, thankful that at least I had not yet gotten the daylights kicked out of me by a errant foot to the head.
If you had guessed this was a war, you’d be half-right. Only this was no conventional enemy, just as much of the weaponry to be used on this day—including form-fitting neoprene body suits and vehicles constructed from aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber formed to impossibly wind-cheating tubular profiles—was anything but the usual equipment seen at the Y. Instead, the main protagonists would be that of time and distance, heat and wind, pain and sore muscles. And mental doubts. The latter cannot be overlooked. No matter how much one has trained, one can never be certain about exactly how the body is going to respond later in the day.
A long day it would be. This was, after all, an Ironman triathlon.
How I Got Into This
As has happened several times in the last few years, the idea for doing this lunatic event first came up while hanging out with a group of well-meaning, everyday folks who just so happen to do Many Needlessly Insane Things In Their Spare Time.
There’s even an official name for these people: the Tri-City Triathlon Club (or TC^2) of the Fremont-Newark-Union City area of California. Only that the stigma of being serious, hard-core club athletes was ditched for the now-official and rather innocent-sounding motto offered to all inquiring newbies, that being: “We’re just a small, informal group of friends who do fun rides, runs, and swims together!” (The most convincing members of the group can make these activities sound like pedaling alongside an infant on a tricycle, or taking a leisurely stroll through the park.)
In this particular case, I was in Boston with my friends Russ, Sharon, and Steve. Those three had just completed the Boston Marathon. The Boston Marathon, for those who don’t know, is for many runners like the Olympics is for many speed skaters, and as Mecca is for Muslims. That is: 1) only la crème need apply and 2) we are talking about a serious, holy journey here.
Despite having just finished that race’s tough, undulating course replete with a little bump in the road called “Heartbreak Hill,” Russ mentioned he was thinking about signing up for Ironman Arizona. Being a mere spectator there and not having the benefit of sore legs to instill some common sense into us, I concurred, “Hey, that’s a great idea!”
Then, a few days later and corresponding through email, there was Bob. At that point I had not met Bob in person yet. Actually, I don’t think anybody had, as he had just joined the TC^2 Yahoo! forum. As it turned out, Bob fit perfectly in the group. This is because he immediately displayed a penchant for being both casual and crazy at the same time. As in, “Hi, I’m Bob. I play tennis. I just did my first triathlon. I like being outdoors. I think I am going to do an Ironman. Let’s go for a fun ride this weekend!” Or words to that effect, as if all of these things were equally normal and rational.
In fact, it was Bob who was the first of us to send in his registration for Ironman Arizona, a whole year (April 2005) before the date of the actual event. A few days later, so did I. Then Russ.
Things were remarkably quiet for a few months afterwards, until then another new TC^2 member, Sandi, also signed up. Unfortunately Sandi later got an injury preventing her from racing, but her entry prompted Sharon, Phil, Bic, JC, and John to register as well. The Tri-City Tri Club ultimately grabbed 5 out of the last 25 available spots in the race!
Back to the Race
2.4 Miles in the Water
So there we were, out in Tempe Town Lake which for whatever reason—speeding motorboats, toxic substances, sharp-toothed piranhas, who knows—is off-limits to swimmers for the rest of the year. Where my friends were in this water, I was unsure, except that most of them were undoubtedly ahead of me at this point.
I concentrated on staying relaxed (which meant remaining completely oblivious to the clobbering arm swings at me by nearby swimmers) and, in particular, Not Swimming All Over The Place. In past triathlons I swam like a gazelle darting left and right, zig-zagging here and there, eventually making it to final destination, assuming I had not zig-zagged backwards. Determined not to swim any “extra-credit” distances this time around, I decided to take the inside line, swimming within 2 feet of all buoys.
For the most part I succeeded despite keeping my head down (to keep my speed up) more than usual and only sighting every 12 armstrokes instead of, say, every 6. On the way back I succeeded a little too well in staying close to the buoys. There was an instance when I spotted one particularly benign-looking buoy that looked like a larger version of one of those hollow, hole-punched baseball poly balls used in elementary schools so kids don’t hurt themselves. I spotted it about 50 feet in the distance, decided it was no longer necessary to sight for another minute, and then—smack!—my fingers landed right into the holes of the buoy.
“Hmmm, I hope this water is cleaner than it looks,” I thought as I felt the sting of blood now seeping from my fingers.
With no time to reflect upon the bacteria content of the lake or the wonders of penicillin, I continued on, buoyed (ha ha) that there were still many wetsuit-clad swimmers around me. I wouldn’t be the last one out of the water this time, wonders of all wonders.
As I emerged from the water, I looked at my watch: 1hr43min and change. Darn, my best time yet, but still really slow. Approaching mediocrity, however…
I looked for the wetsuit strippers, found none, so continued running to the change tent. I struggled to strip off my wetsuit in there especially since I had forgotten to unzip my wetsuit legs. Seconds ticked by as I started to think my transition was becoming disastrous! Should have rehearsed that part in my head. Anyhow, I ran out to the bike racks where a friendly volunteer already had my Cannondale waiting for me, and it was off to the part of the triathlon where, traditionally, I’d feel most at home.
112 Miles on the Bike
I had just cranked up to about 90 rpm when I realized a couple of things:
- It was really windy.
- My bladder was on the verge of exploding.
Ideally, in the case of the latter, I would have taken a leak while I was in the water, thus avoiding having to spend precious seconds in a Port-a-John while still maintaining some standard of hygiene. As it was, I had really tried to, both before and at the end of the swim.
The “before” attempt was particularly dismal. I was treading water when I decided I really should try to go (that is, become leaky). After 30 seconds of trying unsuccessfully, I theorized that my failure to relax my urinary muscles was due to my legs’ scissors actions, so I started floating on my back. Ever try to pee while lying belly-up? (I know, babies probably do that all the time.) Needless to say that was also a failure. I then resumed the upright position, treading water ever so slightly, and tried to imagine I was in a Port-a-Potty floating in the water. That image became too ridiculous for me and, shaking my head, I gave up.
Don’t even get me started about trying to pee while swimming. This is something I just don’t practice and is something I lack any talent for doing. You can say that I was not quite “potty-trained.”
So at Mile 15 or so I stopped off at one of the aid stations and entered one of the Port-a-Johns. I looked at my watch while relieving myself. 30 seconds, 40 seconds, 50 seconds, a minute, a minute ten seconds! Wow, I was really well-hydrated.
It could have been worse. Maybe an hour later, I saw a dude who simply could not wait. So he was on the shoulder, peeing into a water bottle. Yuck, I hope he remembered which bottle he had peed in.
It could have been worse. According to Sharon, there were many people (well, guys) peeing off of the side of the road mid-race, streaming electrolyte-laden fluids into the wind. Good thing no race officials were passing by at that point. That would have been an instant yellow card.
It could have been worse. Make that MUCH worse. So later in the ride, Sharon was passing another female competitor. As she swung around, this lady decided to go right then and there, on the bike, and the results were disastrous, particularly because some of her bodily fluids had splashed onto Sharon. “It was so gross!” lamented Sharon after the race.
Now relieved, I was making good time, and from the halfway-point of Lap 1 to the end of Lap 1, my average speed had shot up from 16.7 mph to 18.4 even though my heart rate was still well under control, hovering above 140 beats per minute or so. Woohoo! This is going to be a good ride, I thought.
I then looked forward to catching up to some of my friends. I thought Phil would be the first one I would reach since he was only about 4 minutes ahead of me by the middle of Lap 1, but apparently he too was having a great ride. It was only until Lap 3 that my front wheel went in front of his. It turns out Sharon would be the first one I’d catch, despite beating me out of the water by 33 minutes. She goes conservatively on the bike to set herself up for the run, and I passed her as she was wading through some bags at the Special Needs station at Mile 60. An hour or so later I’d see another friend on the side of the road, this time Russ. He was wringing the neck of a flat tire! I felt pretty bad for him, since it seems like every time I’ve done an Ironman with him, he’s had some really bad luck (spectator-induced crashes, gastro-intestinal problems, etc.)
My own fortunes would turn for the worse shortly thereafter.
It was Mile 96 when one of my quads almost cramped up. Hmmm, maybe I had been going harder than I should have. Being out of my special Gatorade + Carbo-Pro concoction in my water bottles, I then grabbed a bottle of Gatorade from one of the aid stations and dumped its contents into my aerobar-mounted Aerodrink bottle, drinking as much of it as I could.
A mile after that, I started feeling major discomfort in the crotch region. Everytime I would shift up on the saddle or slide back, I would experience excruciating pain. The roads of Tempe Proper—replete with potholes and expansion joints—were not helping matters. I couldn’t decide if this was due to yet another bursting bladder episode, or if I was suffering serious arterial damage down in that region due to a saddle which is probably long-overdue to be replaced.
“Good thing that I am not planning on having kids any time in the next few months,” I thought to myself. Also: “Better my crotch than my legs!”
As it was, the pain became so intense that during the last 2 or 3 miles it drastically reduced my speed. For the first time I had to resort to coasting. Never before had I looked so forward to getting off the bike and then starting a run in 92-degree heat. Never mind this run was to be a marathon.
A Full Marathon, 26.2 Miles
I was in and out of the Port-A-John at the transition area in another one minute ten seconds and off running on the course when I realized that my crotch was much better, but now my feet were in excruciating pain.
I’ve had, on occasion, some foot soreness (presumably from my stiff-soled cycling shoes) after some rides, but never this bad. As it was, it made it very difficult to run. Sore quads did not help matters. I hobbled along for the first few miles, fully confident that eventually the foot pain would subside, but disappointed about how tight my legs were feeling this early into the run. I chucked down a few salty electrolyte capsules Bob had generously given me before the race.
After the first 4 miles I looked down at my watch. 52 minutes had elapsed already. That’s 13 minute per mile pace. Bleh. This was not exactly how I imagined I would be running.
Miracles of miracles! Shortly after four miles, the foot pain was completely gone and I was free to pick up the pace. “I’m back in it, I’m back in the race,” I muttered to myself excitedly. There was more bounce and stride in my steps now.
This elation was short-lived as, 2 miles later, I noticed that my current speed was still over 10-minute pace. It was particularly demoralizing because I thought I was going an already-slow 9-minute pace, and knew I really couldn’t go any faster.
As it was, in Lap 2 (out of 3) of the run, my pace would become so pathetically slow that I frequently wondered if I could have been going faster if I tried speed-walking. Walking, however, usually has been the kiss of death for me during a run, so I kept my arms pumping and my leg turnover up at around 3 steps per second. Baby steps that is, as my sore quads had virtually shackled my legs to the ground preventing me from picking up my feet.
More gratifying was seeing and waving to friends on the course. They looked like they were hurting much less than I, but none of the ones behind seemed to be making much inroads into my lead. Of them all, Sharon was looking by far the best, and indeed, when looking at the photos, it looked like she was about the only one who looked like she was running even the slightest bit like Paula Radcliffe, minus the head-bobbing.
As 7:00 p.m. rolled around and darkness set in, the air became cooler and one could hear exclamations from the race announcer along with raucous cheer from the spectators at the finish line on the south side of the lake. So with 6 miles to go, I picked up the pace. Now, I’m talking about going from 12:30 to maybe 10:30 or 11:00-mile pace here, but at least this was a refreshing change from the other marathons I’ve ran where I’d invariably slow down like an old jalopy that had just started misfiring in one or two of its cylinders.
8:19 pm, or 13 hours 19 minutes after I started: Finished! There would be no final sprint, no Terrell Owens dances or cartwheels down the chute, just a smile on my face when I heard the announcer proclaim, “… it’s Felix Wong from Fort Collins, Colorado!” An Ironman, again. That was hard. Really hard.
As I was helped over to a chair and handed a plate of pizza—my first real (non-liquid) food since before the race—I looked down at my battered body and inspected the battle wounds. My arms were sunburned. My quads were throbbing, my legs were shot. The ring finger and thumb on my left hand had bloody scabs on them from the buoy-whacking incident in the swim. My neck had what felt like a huge rash on the entire left side of it. (As it turned out, my wetsuit had chafed away some skin; I should have used more Body Glide.)
Another volunteer came up to me. “Wow,” he said. “Wow!” he repeated, this time pausing for effect. “You look like a salt mine!”
“Thanks,” I muttered, thinking that if I were to pass out now, at least the salt would help preserve my body for the funeral. As it was, I would have been perfectly content to remain in the chair, then keel over and die.
Stacey (J.C.’s daughter) came over to congratulate me and said, “Just to let you know, we’re in the bleachers up there, in case you’d like to join us.”
“Yes,” I answered. “Sorry though, I can’t… get… up.” I sat there for another 10 minutes before I resolutely limped over to fetch my dry clothes bag in order to retrieve my camera and cell phone. The distance to walk was only a quarter mile, but it could have been a death march to Siberia as far as my legs were concerned.
As it turned out, an Ironman triathlon IS like a war, with all the pain and suffering to go with it. The difference is the trauma goes away relatively quickly and what remains are memories of you and your friends out there surviving, giving it your best, and never surrendering. It is these memories—and the bond between your fellow comrades—that stay with you forever, stories that one day can be passed on to future generations, stories that may even inspire them to become Ironmen themselves one day. Or real Navy SEALs.
Here’s a swim video by my friend J.C. of the start of the swim. The national anthem was sung before 2200 triathletes started swimming in a mass frenzy.
Official 2006 Ironman Arizona Athlete Video
Below is the official Ironman Arizona athlete video that was from a Race Highlights DVD passed out to participants after the race. You can see me at 9:21-9:25.
The elite men that were there included the U.S.’s Tim DeBoom and Michael Lavato (of Boulder, CO); Canada’s Dave Harju; Great Britain’s Spencer Smith; and the Czech Republic’s Petr Vabrousek. The elite women included Wisconsin’s Heather Gollnick, Scotland’s Bella Comerford (who also lives in Boulder), Austin’s Desireé Ficker (formerly of Boulder), Australia’s Michelle Jones and Germany’s Ute Mueckel. Lavato won the men’s division and Ficker came in 4th in the women’s, bringing tremendous pride to my home state of Colorado and the U.S.
Closer to my heart are the following people, because they are all friends of mine:
Bic Aki #2141
Bill Peters #494
Bob Borck #720
Felix Wong #719
JC Cortez #722
John Schaeffer #848
Phil Chavez #721
Russ Jones #2140
Sharon Richard #1248
Results are at ironmanarizona.com. Below is a summary of them:
My friend Bill Peters from Cheyenne (not associated with the Tri-City Tri Club, but a heckuva great guy who I’ve had the pleasure of training with out in Fort Collins) also finished in under 15 hours in his first Ironman. Congrats to all!
These were my official time splits:
- Total Time: 13:19:22
- Swim Time: 1:43:51
- T1: 4:59
- Bike Time: 6:11:52 (18.1 mph)
- T2: 4:26
- Run Time: 5:14:16 (12:00/mi pace)
- Overall Place: 894
- Division Place, Final: 144/267
This is where I was among 1943 triathletes during the race:
- After the swim: 1844
- After the bike: 1150
- After the run: 894
My swimming is terrible but at least I moved up almost 700 places on the bike!
Below is what I consumed on race day.
- 2 hours before the race: 2 or 3 bananas, some Fig Newtons, a bottle of Gatorade + Carbo-Pro
- 30 minutes before the race: 1 tangerine PowerGel
- During the bike: alternated between 1 PowerGel + water and half-a-bottle of Gatorade + Carbo Pro (2 scoops/bottle) every half-hour. The last hour ingested water + one entire bottle of Gatorade. In all I had 2 bottles of Gatorade + Carbo-Pro (~350 calories/bottle), 5 tangerine PowerGels and 1 GU, maybe 3 or 4 bottles of water, and one bottle of Gatorade.
- Before the run: another bottle of Gatorade + Carbo-Pro I had stuffed in my bike-to-run bag
- During the run: 3 Endurolyte (sp?) capsules the first mile, then chewed on 1 capsule every other mile. The miles I did not take an Endurolyte capsule I consumed a whole cup of Gatorade and a cup of water.
I never felt hungry or had any stomach distress during the race, but I was psychologically sick of Gatorade for days afterwards.