When I had a disappointing finish at Ironman Wisconsin by missing qualifying for Kona by a couple places, I looked to see what remaining, if any, Ironman races were still open in the US. There were only two; IM Louisville (done in 2009) and IM St. George. With the encouragement of my friend Lori, who already signed up for IM St. George along with several others I knew, I decided St. George it would be which was not an easy decision. Because St. George is an early season race this meant I would have to train during the winter months and training in the Bay Area isn't the same as training during the winter months in the desert. In other words, I'd prepare in rain, cold, dark... you get the idea. But most significant about this race was the course. It is reputed as the HARDEST Ironman of the 24 Ironman races around the world. So, signing up I was thinking, "What am I doing?" And it WAS a difficult season getting ready; most of the country was experiencing a severe winter and our rain and temperature totals this year seemed to hit all time records keeping us from necessary time and miles on the bike but I figured if it's this way for me, it's this way for most.
IM St. George is a Saturday race, unlike most of the IM races that occur on Sunday. So, Wednesday a day earlier with my gear and car packed, I started the 9 hour drive from San Jose to St. George. The drive was uneventful and I spent a good portion utilizing the time to catch up with some phone calls and news. Upon arrival it was already dark, yet I quickly found my hotel, grabbed necessary snacks and water and looked for a restaurant for dinner; no easy task as many restaurants close early on Wednesday night in St. George.
Then, the next morning, Lori texts me saying we're riding the run course, wanna come? Of course I had heard about this run course and was eager to see it first hand in order to know what I would be experiencing on Saturday. So, I threw on my bike gear, pumped up my tires and went out to meet them as agreed. My hotel was only two blocks from the finish on Main Street so it was easy to get an immediate look at how the run would start... and it starts by going up. Finding Lori and Jane up the road we turned around and continued to pedal. Up Diagonal Road, up Bluff, UP to Red Cliff... turn, UUUPPP to the top and down and up and down and up and in and around a little something, something, down, turnaround and Up and that's the way it went the entire time.
Next, registration was extremely smooth and immediately I could tell the volunteers were going to be great here. The people of St. George are warm, hospitable and grateful we were there! After lunch I went back to my hotel room and took a nap until 3:30. Waking, I needed to get ready for Iron Prayer being held at a Calvary Chapel south of town. When I arrived there was a group of about thirty or so folks. I was met by Jason and Pastor Rick. The worship team started off with a few songs that pulled us together and along with what Jason and Rick shared with us it was clear the message God had in store for us on race day was "Race with compassion," have awareness of others and realize the race isn't just about you and your needs. Which is exactly what I planned to do but more on that later. Afterward, it was time for dinner and Lori, her sister, Tracy, and I opted for a restaurant in town called the Red Pony which was surprisingly good and I was able to walk to and from my hotel room... even better!
The next day the goal was to get everything checked in and get in the water. Last year the water temps were in the low to mid 50's and many people experienced hypothermia. With a similar winter I knew the water would be cold. Depending on who you talked to it was either 62 (coming from the friendly, smiling volunteers at the expo) or 57/58 (from the park rangers). Someone said, "Yeah, it might be 62 at the surface at 5pm but you'll be in the water before 7am! When I arrived at Sand Hollow resevoir, a good 20 minutes from town, I found the usual scene. People aready on their bikes riding out wearing aero helmets, donning disk wheels, some in packs, most alone. There was an occasional runner, mostly going across the flat distance of the dam and back. In the park parking lot cars were everywhere, a large tent sat in the middle where racers would change from swim to bike attire and rows and rows of metal racks upon somewhere in the midst, my bike would rest for the evening.
I was to meet Dan and perhaps Lori would join us but a text told me she had no intention of getting in the water. I didn't see her but quickly a tall, skinny, good looking young guy walked up... "Dan?" "Dan?" "Hey! Nice to finally meet!" Dan Mac Fayden was my contact with Compassion International and who is leading the Team Compassion initiative for Compassion. Although having signed up for the race almost a year ago, a recent injury was keeping him from running and he came to start the course but intended to bow out at the run not wanting to damage his recovery and keeping his sights on Ironman Florida later this year. As we were talking I received a call from the Public Relations department at Compassion headquarters in Colorado Springs. They had just finished a press release going out to the San Jose Mercury News and the local paper in St. George. They wanted to make sure everything was accurate on a couple quotes from the interview we did as I was in route to St. George a couple days prior.
Team Compassion is something new but Compassion International has been around for quite sometime... Here's a brief introduction:
Compassion International is the world’s largest Christian child development organization that permanently releases children from poverty. Founded in 1952, Compassion successfully tackles global poverty one child at a time, serving more than 1.2 million children in 26 of the world’s poorest countries. Recognizing that poverty is more than a lack of money, Compassion works through local churches to holistically address the individual physical, economic, educational and spiritual needs of children - enabling them to thrive, not just survive. Compassion has been awarded ten consecutive, four-star ratings by Charity Navigator, America’s largest charity evaluator.
We sponsor two children through Compassion, Umaru in Uganda and Debra in Togo, Africa and I have been an advocate for Compassion for years. So, when a friend of mine, who happens to be a Compassion employee, raced in Louisville with me a couple years ago we were talking about this idea. He talked with others in the organization who also were passionate about the idea of raising awareness and money for children through endurance sports and in January started going public with the idea. When Team Compassion became a reality I immediately decided to use St. George as my first effort to race for this great cause and within weeks raised more than $11,000 for the Medical Assistance Fund, a designation giving extraordinary medical care for children in poor countries who wouldn't otherwise get help. For more information on my Team Compassion effort go HERE.
As Dan and I got into our wetsuits he was telling me how our tri kits (clothing we wear during the race) would arrive this afternoon explaining that due to the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, customs was taking their time checking things into the country. I wasn't worried, at least they were in the US and Dan's wife Sarah was enroute to St. George with them but I was a little worried about the water temp... climbing down the rocks, we put on our goggles and pointed to a distant buoy and jumped in... it wasn't bad. Chilly but doable! Once back on shore we check in our bike gear and headed back into town. I grabbed my run gear and took it over to transition (T2) for check in. By now the temperature outside was starting to really cook. There was a steady breeze and the temp gauge in my car read 95. Double checking I looked in my run bag to see I had enough nutrition for the run and remembered, "Oh that's right... I'm running on a brand new pair of shoes, I've never tried before."
For those who train and race; trying something new on race day is a cardinal rule of "DON'T!" Don't wear new things, don't try new food, don't adjust to new positions... just don't! But I'm going to. With the temps predicted to be in the low to mid 90's I knew my feet would get soaked from pouring water on my head. So, K-Swiss has released a water resistant, easy draining,d long distance race shoe called the Kwicky Blade Light. A 9 ounce shoe intended to stay 9 ounces! and with the water and the hills... It was worth the risk!
Having checked everything in... dinner was the last order of business, where a bunch of us met up at Basila's where I had a good size portion of Mahi Mahi over pasta. Heading back it was just after 6:30 and I still hadn't driven the bike course which should take about an hour so, with plenty of light left I set out but quickly realized I didn't have any water and no map so decided to just ride it blind the next day.
Back in the hotel, the Lakers were getting their butts handed to them by the Dallas Mavericks so I turned off the TV at 8:30, set the alarm for 4:15 am, turned out the lights, closed my eyes and woke up at 4:10 pretty rested and not even needing the alarm clock! A good sign perhaps?
RACE DAY: 4:10 I was awake and shutting off the alarms that would start blaring in about 5 minutes. I brought my Nespresso coffee maker and quickly pumped a double espresso made half the milk for a light latte and walked into the lobby where the staff had put out an early assortment of bagels, cereal, eggs and yogurt. With toasted bagel and two hard boiled eggs I drank a cup of orange juice and headed back to my room to put on my kit which Dan brought over the night before. I covered myself with sweats and attached flip flops to my feet then grabbed my run special needs bag and morning cloths bag containing all my swim gear and made the three block walk to the buses that were lined up off Tabernacle to schlep athletes off to Sand Hollow. The ride out was fairly quiet with the exception of two girls behind me; one doing her ninth Ironman and the other her first, the latter getting as much instruction as possible from the former. When we walked off the bus I turned to encourage the "virgin" (a common term for first timers) that it was going to go better than she feared and that she'd remember every detail of the day and to enjoy it! She thanked me and then asked, "What do I do now?" So, I had her walk me to her bike... where I proceeded to explain all the things she should be double checking... tires inflated properly, check! Computer set to 0, check! Gearing in the small chain ring, check! Nutrition, water, swim gear, body marking, location sighting, say something nice to the people around you and make friends... check! I said goodbye to Christina and headed to my bike for the same, I never saw her again.
We headed to the water as the sun was coming up over the ridge of barren mountains. There isn't a tree in sight! Held at the swim arch the pros were in the water and the cannon went off promptly at 6:45. Immediately we were let into the water. Many opted to stay on shore as long as possible not wanting to just sit in the cold water. I jumped in wanting a good position at the front near the middle where I tend to position myself. the 100 yard swim out was c-c-cc-old. But still not as bad as the San Francisco Bay. Once out a bunch of us just held on to a surfboard until about 2 minutes before the start and I moved up to the front of the line... the National Anthem was sung and bang! 7am we were off!
Swim: I tried to look behind me before the cannon blast to see if there was a large group that would want to climb over my back at sometime. It seemed pretty light and as we stretched out the first two hundred meters it was crowded but polite. I was able to hold a line and stay on a pair of toes that didn't seemed to be bothered by my presence nor was I with the person tapping the bottoms of my feet. The only congestion I discovered seemed to be the length from the first turn buoy to the next where the sun was directly in our view making it hard to find the buoys for sighting. So bodies just seemed to be slamming into each other rather than swimming together. Finding those buoys was like swimming with your eyes closed and you just hoped the people in front of you somehow were tethered together in a line heading in the right direction. After making the turn for the long one mile straight swim I pulled up to clear the fog in my goggles which wasn't too bad but bad enough which, made sighting much clearer. The pack was in was holding together and it was easy to recognize one another underwater. Again a polite and cordial group we made it together (finally to the last turn buoy and headed toward shore which looked like a short distance but seemed to take forever to arrive. Popping up out of the water I could see the clock read 1:08. a little slower than I wanted but it felt a bit long to me but how would I know? I don't do Ironman swims that often but I'm just sayin...
T1 - after getting my wetsuit stripped, it's not too far into the corral where the bike gear bags are lined up in several rows. I know mine is mid way down the first row on the left. I cruise down, there is someone calling to a volunteer my number to pull the bag but there are three volunteers there just looking at me doing nothing. I file through the bags, find my number and run over to the change tent. Here there are chairs lined up outside and I'd much rather be outside (cooler, drier and brighter) so I push a chair aside and dump the contents of the bag on the ground... "Hey Team Compassion!" I look up. It's Dan coming up just behind me! "Hey man great swim!" I say as I look down at my gear... uh... that's not my gear. I grab the bag. Look at the number 1722 not 1725! Doh! I grabbed the wrong bag! So, I shove everything back in and run back to the line and find my bag which was switched to the other side (odds on the right evens on the left). Argh! Now back a second time let's try this again. Dan and I exchange words of encouragement and he's off... then me. Darn it. I was here first!
Bike: My main focus on the bike this race was to go easy! EASY! Something I don't do well. After Wisconsin, the only thing I could think of that caused me such struggle was having gone too hard on the bike yet, there I felt I had held back too. So, this meant hold waaay back since the bike course is reputed for having a very difficult two loop section of climbing and fast, quick decent. The first twenty miles out was calm and steady up hill but the wind was at our back and I very much enjoyed the cool morning and the occasional chat with those around me. But something was off. No literally off! Not paying attention, when I would roll over a little rough patch of road my aero bottle would just rattle unusually. Looking down I discovered the two rubber bands made to hold the bottle in place were missing. Gone! I know I installed them and they are pretty secure once on and they were pretty new so they didn't break off. This could only mean one thing... some jerkazoya stole them. I couldn't believe it! That's cheap... really cheap after all they don't cost that much but I guess someone forgot to pack theirs and decided to just borrow a pair. I hope I'm wrong about this but I don't think so. Anyway, back to my ride, we cross town up onto the run course turn down onto Shadow and head west into some pretty amazing terrain! Once out of the sprawling suburb the road narrows and begins to climb up to Gunlock. A river meanders along the road and at one point I looked up to see a beautiful waterfall formation cascading down a configuration of red boulders smoothed over time and it was breath-taking. Soon we hit a section of pretty steep grade and I looked over at a guy I was passing and asked, "Is this what I've been hearing about?" He said, "Oh no... it gets worse. A lot worse!" Now several miles up the road is a hairpin turn, and as I come around there is no doubt THIS is what I'd been hearing about! It's called the wall and the closer to the top the steeper it gets (someone told me 18%) I just stayed in the saddle and slowly ticked away at the pedals thankful I switched out of my RotoRings for smaller chaingrings. At the top there is still about ten miles of up before the road distinctly heads back down into town. The decent is fast but is going straight into a headwind now pretty stiff. I just think better to have it here than over there where we're climbing.
I begin the second loop and start to notice that my bike time is going to be nearly Ironman France slow. Which is saying a lot about this course; it is deceptively hard! Glad I was going easy. All I kept saying was save it for the run... you want to finish this with a lot of run in you!
By now the temperature was in the low 80's although my bike gauge read 98 at one point. I knew that was a reflection of heat off the road and a sheltered section as the wind was at my back. Coming in for the last 15 miles I kept checking to see how my quads felt. By extending my legs on the bike I can tell if I've built up too much lactate to make my run comfortable and an early sign of cramping to come. Everything felt fine and when I came off my bike I was able to immediately pop up and run. Yay!
T2 - This time I was determined to grab the right bag and a volunteer (a little girl about 8 years old) was holding it out perfectly for me as I ran by only to be joined by another volunteer who went with me into the tent, undid my bag and began to hand me the contents as he collected my helmet. Now out of the tent with his well wishes I was mobbed by the sunscreen crew with NASCAR pit crew efficiency and I was off!
Run: The only flat section of the run is the first 200 meters on Tabernacle before the left hand turn up Main St. As I came out I couldn't help notice the lightness and comfort of my new K-Swiss Kwicky's. Wow! Even though I took them out for a 3 mile test spin the day before they didn't feel like this! I was happy and knew I made the right decision as the temperature was really starting to climb... and so was I. Out past the first Aid station I popped my first run pack of Salt Tabs and Endurolytes that are in small jewel packs stapled to my race belt, I drink as many water cups I could get my hands on and realize my pace and comfort was better than I hoped for. Now at the top of Diagonal the real up hill push begins. Bluff is a short section before it turn onto Red Hills where the grade jumps to 8% for a little less than a half mile but it does it's damage early on. I'm just ticking away the pace and start reeling in people who are running and I discover people are already starting to walk! Now a little over three miles into the run there is a section of downhill then up again, then a long steep downhill. Keeping my pace and hydration needs in the forefront of my mind I begin to hear people complement the cause I'm racing for... "Way to go Compassion!" One gal walking saw me and said, "I'm so thankful you're out here." Compassion was getting noticed and I was running! Going out to the out and back with the little park setting chicane was just a matter of keeping the feet moving.
All the way back I was still grateful for the lightness of my step and comfort of my stride. At the end of the first lap is special needs where I would grab the rest of my nutrition, extra salt/enduralytes and my packet of Gummy Bears. But after going through it all I notice my Gummy Bears were missing and I looked back only to see them on the ground. Should I go back? I looked down at the beginning of my second loop and realized I was running a normal 8:40 average and couldn't have been more happy. Nah! I didn't need them. Getting to the top of Bluff again still seemed easy but the steep section on Red Cliff hurt a little but I kept moving... BUT then. Starting down the slight decent I noticed a sharp pain on the side of my left leg. It wasn't my quads which tend to hurt first or my calf which come next, no... my it was my IT band and I realized I was doing a funny shuffle with one good and one bad leg... then the other leg started to feel the similar shooting jolt on each heal strike. As I kept going, trying to ignore the pain I realized I was going, "ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh" with each step and my pace radically slowed. I thought maybe I can walk and rub this out. Walking felt okay and there was no pain. It was getting hot and windy but this too didn't bother me but as I started to go uphill again, thinking it was going to be different, I realized both IT bands were as tight as cables holding up a span of bridge. Several times I tried to run as I had plenty of run in me but the legs just wouldn't respond. It hurt really bad but what hurt worse was my realization that this could have been avoided and it was my fault. I should have been stretching my IT bands on a foam roller. I tend to do so mid year when they begin to give me problems but I had been ignoring them and they simply were not going to let this punishing coarse beat them up since I hadn't prepared them. So, for the next eight miles I just walked as quick a pace as I could and privately congratulated everyone in my age group that passed me (about 10 guys) along the way.
As I was walking into the first aid station I was already doing the personal "trash-talk" inside my head. "How could you let this happen." "You blew it!" etc. But thankfully the Lord brought me to my senses and I discovered something that I realized I'd been preaching but not practicing! Looking at the volunteers handing me water, food, offering Vasalene for my blisters, putting up arches that provided shade and mist to cool us off I realized, this is what I'm out here for! Compassion. I was wearing it on my body and people were noticing but for some reason I was last to understand. This race isn't about me. Yes, I'm in it. But it was never meant to be for me... So, why was I so focused on how I felt? How I was doing? How I was letting myself down? Look at these, they, better than me represent what Compassion exists to accomplish. Water, food, shelter, medical attention... all for the purpose of getting someone to keep going, to finish well and to do so without unnecessary struggle.
As I walked, a woman hobbled by, "You just made my day... I'm gonna pray for my sponsored child." I was humbled and it made me realize, I was thankful to be... walking.
Now at the bottom of Diagonal, I made my way around the roundabout onto main with the finish in view/ I knew it would be painful but figured I could do it... I began to run. Not very well, but I ran and crossed the finish line. It was the longest it has ever taken me to finish an Ironman 11 hours, 47 minutes and 31 seconds but it was the fastest time for me to thank God for the lessons I learned, appreciate the experience I had and look around to see who else was with me on that day.
Ironman St. George, as I twittered after the race, You are stupid hard! But your people are fantastic, your scenery unbelievable and your water wasn't too cold... in fact, like the rest of the day; it was just right.