As I sit here, I find myself missing the craziness of the transition, the calm before the storm that is treading water before a race and the 100+ mile training rides.
I won’t bore you with the intricacies of training for a multi-sport event of this distance, but an average of 16 hours per week, 7 days a week were spent on sculpting my body for an all-out battle in Tempe, Arizona.
My flight from San Jose landed in Phoenix early Thursday afternoon. Off to Ironman Village to pick up my bike from TriBike Transport and then check into the hotel. Back to the airport I went to pick up Sara who had to work a full day before flying south.
Friday morning was spent at the athlete check-in, purchasing Ironman Arizona clothes and picking up the legendary Ironman backpack. My parents flew down from Detroit and were thrilled with the warm weather. We met up with some friends from the Santa Cruz Triathlon Association and all went to dinner at the Flaming Kabob.
Saturday was an amazing, fun-filled day! A blessing and a curse to have the premiere of the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, on TV the day before I race Ironman Arizona! Nonetheless, we watched it as a family and then headed back to Ironman Village for bike check-in. I went on a 20-minute ride to go through the gears and to spin out the legs, and I noticed that my shift was a bit loose. I immediately went to a bike tech who tightened up my rear derailleur. A routine of mine for all races is to drive the bike course the day before to help remember landmarks and get a feel for the inclines. As we were driving the course, I was getting quite frustrated with Sara because she was on her phone for most of the ride. Little did I know what she was up to that little sneaker! We get back to the hotel and settle into our rooms. No more than five minutes later there is a knock on the door and it is my father. He asks me to come outside to have a look at something and to my surprise, I see Mike Kloosterman and Steve Sonnenberg. Both are great friends from college, where we played lacrosse together.
How blessed am I to have my fiancée, my parents and my best friends cheering me on down at Ironman Arizona!
Race day: time to put it all together. My family was there at transition as I got my kit dialed-in. Time to get the wetsuit on and start heading towards the swim start. I didn’t fully expect to see my family again, but when I did they immediately pulled out their “Team Steve” shirts that Sara custom made…I couldn’t help but cry as I entered the water.
Swim: 1:14:10 – I positioned myself near the front. Treading water for a good 15 minutes, I started to get a bit chilled. Without knowing what was coming next…BOOM!!!!!! Off starts Ironman Arizona. 2,639 athletes all charging forward at an instant! Fighting for a chance to swim with good form was an issue until the first turn. Roughly 15 minutes into the swim the sun crept over the horizon and was blinding us as we sighted for the shortest path in Tempe Town Lake. Now, I don’t know if this was caused because of the massive amounts of coffee with very little water or because I was so nervous that I continually had my feet flexed, but about 40 minutes into the swim my calves started cramping. Because of this, I had to let my legs float (essentially dragging) and only use my arms to pull in the water.
T1: 3:44 – I passed up the wetsuit strippers and passed a few people on my run to transition. I grabbed my bag and as I was working on my helmet & sunglasses, a volunteer stripped my wetsuit. I grabbed my shoes and jetted off towards my bike.
Bike: 5:48:51 – The bike split can be summarized with one word: windy. A three-loop course that is flat and fast. I knew that the first loop would be the quickest so I jumped into my big chain ring and started hammering right away. A few turns and I was out on the Beeline Highway. The wind wasn’t too strong, but strong enough to keep my mph at 17.72 heading out. Now, once I made the turn, got into aero position and dropped the hammer I was able to keep a solid 24.62 mph. My goal was to finish each lap right around 1:50. My first lap was 1:49:30 so I was right on target. Heading out on the second lap I had a better idea of when to pick it up, when to jump out of aero and when to just keep a steady pace. The only issue is that the wind didn’t have the same plan as I did. My mph dropped to 15.99 on the way out, but then 25.87 mph on the way back down. I was only 10 seconds slower on the 2nd loop, but easily pushed it 10% harder. I knew that I couldn’t keep that pace on the 3rd loop, plus I expected the wind to pick up even more. I guessed right. My crawl was 14.17 mph on the way out…way too slow. I still hit it pretty hard on the way back with an average speed of 25.35 mph.
So to help summarize the averages:
- Loop 1 Out: 17.72 mph
- Loop 1 Back: 24.62 mph
- Loop 2 Out: 15.99 mph
- Loop 2 Back: 25.87 mph
- Loop 3 Out: 14.17 mph
- Loop 3 Back: 25.35 mph
T2: 4:03 – As I was approaching the dismount line, I slipped out of my Specialized Trivent cleats. I slipped my foot over my bike as I rounded a turn, but I was a bit too soon and had to throw my leg back over for another 15 seconds of peddling. Surprisingly, my lower body felt fine after riding 112 steady miles. Perhaps I was so “in the moment” that I didn’t feel the soreness and pain from the ride. I grabbed my transition bag and headed to the tents. I changed outside as I wore a singlet tri-suit the entire race. My transition was longer than expected because I had to slip on compression socks. I feel that the additional minute or two to put these on paid off in the end. Time to head out on the run…oh wait, tie your shoes first, Steve!
Run: 4:16:54 – I rushed through transition so quickly that it didn’t even hit me that I had 26.2 miles to run! I made the first turn and saw my family, gave Sara a kiss and kept going. The first few miles seemed easy enough, running at an 8:30 pace. Beautiful view of the sunset on my first loop and a few glimpses of some pros. I knew the goal of the run was to suffer from aid-station to aid-station. My stomach was so jacked up from only eating GU’s for the past few hours that any solid food didn’t have a chance of staying down. This caused a problem with an empty stomach around mile 10. Hitting the “wall” at mile 20-22 of a marathon run is pretty standard, but I kept running into the wall from mile 11 to 19. Those miles were really tough.
Around mile 20, I had to stop for a quick bathroom break. After I got out, a runner with a “30” on his left-calf passed me. “That’s my Age Group!!” I thought. I pushed it for half a mile to catch up with him and he started to slow a bit. “Only five more miles to go” I said. “Want to run them with me?” said this stranger…and yet did I know that he would be my savior!
So we ran for a mile chatting about California and what we plan on eating immediately after the race. Todd Neider then stated that if we can run the last 4 miles in just under 35 minutes, we have a shot of beating 11:30. So off we went, our speed picking up, our form still lacking, a mutual decision to not walk at any aid-stations. Over the bridge we ran to the south side of Tempe Town Lake and down Rio Salado Pkwy. Todd and I were running the last miles at under 9:00 pace, which doesn’t seem quick but it felt like we were nearly sprinting.
Racing in an Ironman, anything can go wrong. With so many athletes moving so fast really only looking out for themselves, you always have to be mindful of your surroundings. I finally knew that I would finish when we were close enough to hear Mike Reilly’s voice.
Approaching the chute, I hear yelling to my right and it’s my beautiful friends and family! As I made the final turn, I saw Sara running next to the chute and cheering me on. Tears filled my eyes as a full year of sacrifice, hardship, blood and tears came to fruition with such an incredible race!
I jumped across the finish line with an explosion of excitement! I turned around to cheer on Todd, stopped my watch and then we gave each other a giant hug of congratulations. A picture or two later, we parted our ways with promises of keeping in touch and went to our respective families. The rest of the night is history as I enjoyed a celebratory Bell’s Two Hearted IPA, some pizza, a shower and then we returned to the finish line for the magic hour to midnight.
Putting together my notes from this race, it is hard not to fall to hindsight and wishful thinking about how I could have planned or raced better. A few thoughts from that perspective:
- Shouldn’t have had five cups of coffee in the morning, or at least I should have drank more water. That would have relieved the calves from cramping.
- Should have pushed harder on the bike into the wind. No matter how hard or how easy you push it, your legs will be dead after 112 miles.
- Salt tabs on the run!
I cannot finish this report without thanking the most important person in my life, Sara Johnson. Her patience through this entire journey was up front and present with every step of the way; the 8 hour bike rides on Saturday that left me on the couch napping, the early morning spins and the late night swims. Thank you for being my partner!
To my parents who don’t quite understand why I put my body through this amazing journey, but love me and support me anyways! Thank you!
To Mike, Steve and Lauren who took a weekend and a large chunk of change to spend it walking over 10 miles and losing their voice just for a few glimpses of me charging on by. I will forever be grateful to you three for the rest of my life!
As for the future – I’ll let the glow of my first Ironman take its full course. Who knows if or when I’ll do another full Ironman. Next year should round out pretty full with Escape From Alcatraz, Pacific Grove and Ironman 70.3 Lake Tahoe.