Breaking 11: Ironman Arizona
November 18, 2018
2.4 mi swim, 112 mi bike, 26.2 mi run
*This report may contain strong language.
“You wanna go under 11 hours right?” Alan asked as we ran step-for-step in stride with each other. “Yes,” was about all I could manage. “Well, then we can’t stop at any more fucking aid stations,” Alan said.
Race Lead Up
I arrived in Arizona on Tuesday evening having driven with my buddy Mike Melton, AKA the guy who taught me almost everything I know about triathlon and guided me for my first Ironman back at Boulder 2016. Another friend, Joel Diaz, was flying in Tuesday night as well. Joel was about to attempt his first Ironman. Joel had guided me at the Disney Marathon in 2016 when I attempted to qualify for Boston for the first time.
We spent Wednesday getting bikes put together and looked over by a bike shop. Eating good food and tracking down a pool to do some easy swimming. Wednesday evening one of Joel’s old roommates, who now lived in the Phoenix area, came over to the Airbnb for dinner and we enjoyed some relaxed laughter and good company.
Thursday, Mike and Joel went to check in and do some expo shopping while I headed over to the Airbnb I’d booked for Alan, his wife Muriel and I. Alan and Muriel arrived Thursday evening and we immediately began moving into pre-race mode. Alan got out all the “torcher tools” including a car buffer which we used to gently massage our muscles, foam rollers, roller sticks and a variety of other mysterious instruments.
On Friday, Muriel and I made a grocery run while Alan did some work on his computer taking care of athletes he coaches. Then it was time to head to the expo, check in, listen to the athlete briefing and get back to the house. While listening to the athlete briefing Alan and I weren’t 100% thrilled to hear that the swim start and location had changed. But we were less pleased when we learned that the swim course would now be a clockwise swim with all right hand turns. Since I do a better job swimming when I swim on my guide’s right side this would mean a more stressful swim for Alan as he tried to sight on the buoys around me instead of sighting to his left. This meant we also had to decide how best we were going to signal me to turn. Eventually we came up with the idea of just me swimming as far to my right as possible and always trying to keep the tether tight and Alan would stop me if he needed to and we’d physically reorient ourselves. Or Alan could just punch me in the ribs to tell me to move over. Whatever, we figured we had 2.4 miles to figure it out in the swim. Everything else though seemed unchanged from the year before.
That evening we went to a bar to socialize with several friends and some of the athletes that Alan coaches. Alan lifted my beer ban and allowed me to have two beers because you can’t socialize with endurance athletes and not drink beer. It’s against some unwritten code.
Saturday we got up and headed to the practice swim which was a 750 meter loop that was a miniature version of the swim course Sunday. Before diving into the water though Alan and I took 30 minutes or so answering questions from a local news station who were doing a short piece on us. Then we plunged into the chilly 61 degree water and completed the practice swim at a fairly easy effort. Overall we were pleased with our practice swim especially since it was Alan’s first ever time guiding me in open water. We’d swum with a tether in a pool but swimming in open water is much different tethered than in a pool. We then went to lunch with Muriel and Alan’s friend and business partner, Cory, who’d flown in that morning to support us and several other friends and athletes that were racing. Finally it was back to the house for naps, food, lots of fluid and bed. After all, we had some big goals at this race and we needed to be rested.
Race Day: Shit just ain’t this easy is it?
Ironman mornings begin early. For me that’s around 3:15 or 3:30 AM. I had to mix my nutrition—consisting of several bottles of Base Performance Rocket Fuel which is two scoops of Base Performance Hydro, one scoop of Base Performance Amino and two scoops of Base Performance Salt—and double-check that I had my wetsuit, goggles, swim cap and timing chip. Then it was down the stairs to stuff my face with food.
My Ironman breakfast is pretty basic. I eat two to three packets of maple and brown sugar instant oatmeal, two to three bananas, a bagel with peanut butter, black coffee and gatorade. Alan ate eggs, sausage, rice cakes, bananas and coffee. Then it was time to head out the door.
We left the house around 4:45 and made it to the parking garage a little after 5. We quickly found a parking spot and headed into transition to arrange our nutrition on the bike and do a last minute tire pressure check. After this was accomplished we walked to a little grass covered hill and just sat down to wait for the time when we had to start walking toward the swim start.
Only one thing was bothering me and I voiced it out loud. “Shit’s gone too easily so far today.” And for an Ironman morning I was right. Usually I feel stress about getting to the start on time. Usually I have to use the bathroom every five minutes, or something doesn’t go just right. But today everything was just falling into place and I hoped it was a good omen.
The Swim: It’s a good thing I like the cold
Alan and I made our way down toward the swim start. I’d decided to go with my one piece sleeveless ITU kit with the Bubba Burger logo displayed prominently on the front and back, and my Roka sleeveless wetsuit—partly because it’s the only wetsuit I own that isn’t in need of repair and partly because I don’t like swimming in full sleeves. We wound our way through the crowd at the swim start and made our way up to the front where the pros were staging. As participants in the Physically Challenged Division we were allowed to start immediately behind the female pros so that we weren’t fighting the mass of people at the swim start. Having a few minutes of smooth water also helps my guide to settle in and not be so incredibly nervous about the swim.
Just before the singing of the national anthem we observed a moment of silence for a firefighter and triathlete who’d lost his life while training for Ironman Arizona just a few weeks before. He was hit and killed by a distracted driver while out riding his bike after a work shift. It was sobering because cyclists and triathletes being hit by distracted drivers while out training has become far too regular an occurrence. So please, friends and family who drive, put your phones down and pay attention to the road.
The gun went off for the male pros to start. Then the female pros lined up and the gun went off for them. Then the head official sent Alan, myself and any other PC athletes who wanted a head start in. Strangely my buddy Corvin, another visually impaired athlete, and his guide Johannes weren’t anywhere to be seen. So Alan and I figured they were starting back with the crowd.
Alan and I entered the water and at first it was a shock to the system. It was pretty fucking cold. They’d announced the water temp as being 60 degrees. Later on many people were reporting the water temp at 58 degrees. Nevertheless, it was cold. But we didn’t have time to dillydally. As soon as we were able we started swimming. We took it pretty easy for the first few hundred meters as we had a couple of tight right hand turns. Then we were able to settle into our Ironman race effort. But for some reason, even though I felt strong and I felt as though I was grabbing the water well, the swim felt slow. It was almost as though we were battling a current.
After a while the super fast age groupers caught up to us and began swimming over and around us. Several swam right up between Alan and I getting tangled in the tether. That threw off our swim strokes and caused us to stop, reorient and start again. Occasionally someone would swim by me on the right and I’d hesitate because I didn’t want to get elbowed or kicked in the face as I had in so many other races.
For the most part the swim went fairly smoothly. But no matter how much I focused on my swim technique, fast arm turn over, strong kick, body rotation, etc, it felt as though Alan and I weren’t making much forward progress. We were being tossed and bounced around as though we were in a washing machine. And while this is usually the case in an Ironman swim it felt more pronounced than normal.
Finally, my hands touched the boat ramp and I stood up on shaky numb legs. Alan and I staggered up the swim exit and I vaguely heard Mike Reilly, the voice of Ironman, call out our names and saying something about how we were going for a sub 11 hour Ironman finish time.
As soon as we could talk, Alan said exactly what I was thinking, “Damn that felt fucking slow!”
Swim Time: 1 hour 19 minutes 14 seconds
“fuck this hurts your feet!” Alan said as we jogged through the seemingly endless transition from the water’s edge toward the bike gear bag pick up, wetsuit peelers and changing tent. I’d already stripped my wetsuit down to around my waist and was trying not to focus on how cold my feet were and how, yes, it did hurt to run over the uneven ground. It felt like I was stepping on pins and needles. My toes were completely numb and I just wanted to get out of my wetsuit and get on the bike.
The wetsuit peelers did a phenomenal job in helping me get the legs of my wetsuit off. Then Alan and I grabbed our bike gear bags and headed into the warm changing tent to put on our socks, cycling shoes, helmets and sunglasses. Then we trotted out, grabbed the bike and wheeled it to the mount line. Muriel and Cory were standing just on the other side of the transition fencing and when Alan mentioned that we thought the swim was slow Muriel told us that we’d done a 1:19 which was about five minutes slower than we’d expected. Right then I shifted my brain to thinking about just racing the best I could. I’d secretly hoped that we could go 10:40 for the day, but I knew we’d need a perfect day. However, sub 11 hours was still in play if Alan and I could have a strong bike.
But as we rolled to the mount line I banished all thoughts of time goals. I needed to focus on what I could control here and now, not what could happen.
My friend Scott Bennefield was at the mount line and wished me luck as Alan and I mounted up and pushed off. Sorry, I didn’t respond Scott but I was pretty laser focused.
Transition 1 Time: 8 minutes 11 seconds
Total Time: 1 hour 27 minutes 25 seconds
The Bike: The Limo’s Last Ride
My custom built Cannondale has been my trusty steed for more than 10 years. I’ve ridden it with many pilots keeping me upright and healthy over tens of thousands of miles. (Note: Chris Howard’s and my crash during race across America doesn’t count since we crashed while using Dan Berlin’s Seven. Funnily enough, the four flat tires we had during RAAM also came while riding the Seven. So Dan, I guess we can call your Seven Flatapuss Jr.) Needless to say, the “Limo” as Mike Melton had so aptly named my bike in 2015 when I started racing triathlons had been a good and faithful ride. But I’d decided that this race would be it’s last. So I prayed that the little mechanicals that had been cropping up more frequently over the last year would hold off and the Limo could give me one more rock star race.
A little more than five miles out of transition I heard a dreaded sound. It was a high pitch squeaky whistle that I recognized immediately. The rear break was rubbing. We powered through until Alan was able to find a spot just past mile 15 where we could pull over and make a quick adjustment to the rear wheel. It only cost us a couple of minutes but it was something we had to do because who knew how many minutes it could cost us if we didn’t fix it.
We hit the first turn around at mile 18.7 or so in just over an hour. And as soon as we made the tight U-turn we immediately started flying. Ironman Arizona is awesome for tandems because it’s a very gradual uphill on the B Line highway for 10-11 miles to the turn around. This means you get that same 10-11 mile stretch going slightly downhill. So with the combined weight and power of the tandem Alan and I could easily hold 25-30 mph on our return toward town. After the stretch on the highway we had some tight turns and a rough road before we made another tight turn around to head back out for our second loop. I heard Mike Reilly again give us a shout out as we made the turn and headed out. We had some time to make up and I intended to put down some power on this lap.
My legs felt strong and I was riding in a solid tucked position behind Alan. But even though I felt strong and was pushing the effort it still felt as though we were moving slower than we should. I had nutrition alarms set on my watch which alerted me every 15 minutes to take licks of Base salt, drink my rocket fuel and/or eat a bar or jell. The 15 minute gaps between watch alerts seemed to be getting longer and longer.
Our second lap was also slightly more crowded as more people had exited the swim and were out on the bike course. This meant Alan was constantly saying “on your left.” Fortunately though we didn’t get passed too much.
We made the turn around at 56ish miles in about 2 hours and 42 minutes. We pulled off for a planned bathroom and refueling stop at mile 63ish where bike “special needs” was set up. Both Alan and I had to piss like race horses and refill a water bottle.
When we got back on the bike and started riding again Alan informed me that the strap on his right cycling shoe was busted. Not a huge deal as long as he didn’t pull up on the pedal but it probably affected our power just a bit. No big deal. We were still riding well, though not as well as we’d hoped. Since we’d come through the halfway point in 2:42ish according to Alan’s watch I guessed we were on pace for about a five and a half hour bike ride. Better than my ride at Arizona 2017 and my best Ironman bike time ever, but we’d planned on a sub 5:10 bike split.
The rear break occasionally rubbed a little more and then as we passed 90 miles the front break decided it was a good time to start rubbing as well. Alan had to keep flicking the break levers to loosen the breaks as much as possible because we couldn’t afford to stop again.
We rolled toward the dismount line and my watch beeped signaling a 15 minute interval had passed. “Wow, right around 5:30,” I thought. It wasn’t until more than three hours later I discovered that I’d miscounted the nutrition alarms that had gone off on my watch. I’d accidentally added 15 minutes to our bike time.
Bike Time: 5 hours 18 minutes 26 seconds
Total Time: 6 hours 45 minutes 51 seconds
Transition 2: “Going slow is going fast.” – Jeff Evans to me as we hiked up a steep mountain trail somewhere in Peru in 2006 when I was just 14 years old.
Alan and I grabbed our run gear bags and sat down in some chairs outside of the changing tent. I got my cycling shoes off along with my helmet and sunglasses. I’d tossed an extra pair of socks into my gear bag in case the socks I wore during the bike leg got wet for any reason, but my socks were still nice and dry and I felt I could run well in them. So I just pulled on my Hoka One One Tracer2 running shoes and immediately headed for the port-a-john since I could feel my guts gurgling. Thank you to the volunteer who helped me get to the port-a-john while Alan was still putting on his shoes and collecting the run tether. After a minute or two emptying my system I popped out of the port-a-john, put on the run tether and Alan and I moved out of T2 and on to the run course. It felt as though we’d taken forever in T2 but any time I’m in transition I remind myself of what one of my climbing mentors told me one time “going slow is going fast.” This basically meant, move efficiently, don’t hurry and you’ll go faster than you realize.
Transition 2 Time: 4 minutes 12 seconds
Total Time: 6 hours 50 minutes 3 seconds
The Run: Triathlon is not how well you can swim, bike or run; it’s how well you can swim, bike and run.
As soon as we started running my legs felt heavy. My quads felt huge and like I was trying to move them through mud. My calves were extremely tight and I thought briefly about stopping to stretch them out. My run form was also all over the place as I staggered sideways into Alan. I wasn’t sure how wide the path was we were running on and the last thing I wanted to do was step off an edge this early into the run. So we played a little yoyo with me bouncing into Alan and away from him again until I finally settled in and was able to get in sync with Alan.
Alan set the pace and cadence and it was my job to match my stride with his. As soon as my feet found the rhythm, my arms fell into sync with my legs and my breathing fell into my long run pattern. Breathe in for three-four foot strikes, breathe out for three-four foot strikes. Once we got by the early run hubbub of noise it was much easier to just focus on running at an almost effortless pace. I didn’t know what pace we were holding exactly but it felt smooth. Each time we came to an aid station we grabbed what we needed as quickly as possible and got out of there.
Just beyond mile three my buddy Mike ran up next to me and said, “Come on buddy, if you can pull off a 3:52 the world record’s yours. So get your ass moving!” Then he slapped me on the butt and darted off the course again to continue cheering. “Put that out of your head for now,” I told myself. I couldn’t focus on trying to break the overall Visually Impaired Ironman World record. I had to focus on running my race and if I ran smart I’d still PR. But I wanted that record if I could. Or if I couldn’t get it I at least wanted to make it close.
For the first three or four aid stations I only grabbed water. And for the most part Alan and I were able to run through the stations. Around mile five I felt a gurgling in my stomach again and took a quick pitstop in a port-a-john to clear my guts out again. After that I started grabbing water and gatorade at the aid stations. Alan and I also began power walking through the aid stations and picked up running as soon as we were clear of the area.
We simply focused on staying steady. My goal was only to walk in aid stations. Between the aid stations I would not walk unless it was absolutely 100% necessary.
For the most part Alan and I were very focused. We occasionally chatted about random things along the run and Alan would describe some of what was around us, but for the most part we focused our energy into running and Alan focused on giving me the information I needed. “Feet up. Step toward me. Sharp left turn. Sharp right turn. Super tight fucking U-turn. Aid station coming, what do you need?”
We passed through the Base Aid Station which was rocking as usual and grabbed some bottled rocket fuel for a quick pick me up. Then we made the turn around mile seven and up alongside of us came running the top female pro, Heather Jackson. As she pulled alongside she said “Great work guys!” Then disappeared ahead of us. (Yes, this is the same Heather Jackson that the year before my guide Will shouted at “Princeton sucks!” while we were on the bike and Heather was cheering from the sidelines. I don’t think she remembered that a year later LOL.)
Alan and I continued chugging along grabbing what we needed in aid stations and continuing to run strong between stations. After mile eight or so I felt surprisingly light on my feet. My calves were no longer tight, my stomach had settled down and I felt I could run forever.
About mile 12 Alan felt he was on the verge of bonking so we started grabbing coke in aid stations as well. Even though I felt good and strong I knew that if Alan was feeling calorie deficient then I would be feeling that way before long as well. So I started having coke in addition to my water and gatorade. I also grabbed some bananas and Alan had some pretzels and grapes.
We hit the turn around and immediately flew back out onto the second loop holding strong. The miles seemed to just melt away. Around mile 14 or 15 I was in a zone and vaguely heard Mike running on Alan’s other side yelling at me that I needed to pick it up. That I was looking good but that I couldn’t get lazy.
At mile 16 I started counting down. Ten miles is an easy training run. Nine miles, that’s a walk in the park. Eight miles, hey at this point last year Will was puking out that red bull he drank at mile 16. Seven miles to go, shit Lesley assigns me harder runs than that on the treadmill running at 15% grades. Six miles to go, fuck I hate racing 10ks. Damn it, I think my watch just died.
Around mile 20 of the run, Muriel and Cory found us and started running alongside us. “You guys are on pace for sub 11!” Muriel yelled excitedly. “If we can hold this pace we’ll just sneak in under it,” Alan said. Then Muriel and Cory ran off again to get back to the finish line to cheer us in.
The Last 10K:
Alan looked down at his watch and asked “Is going sub 11 your goal?” “Yes,” was all I could manage. “Then we can’t stop at any more fucking aid stations!”
We ran and didn’t walk. It hurt like hell. All I could do was continue putting one foot in front of the other. Breathe in, breathe out. I tried relaxing my shoulders and letting my arms swing in rhythm with my steps. We ground our way up the steepest and longest hill on the course which under normal circumstances wouldn’t even register in my brain as a hill. But 20 plus miles into an Ironman run it felt like a 10% grade.
We passed through the Base aid station one last time and I heard Matt Miller running alongside us and yelling that I was at 10:35 with just over two miles to go and that I was going to break 11. I think he asked if I needed more rocket fuel but I couldn’t afford to slow down for even a second. I couldn’t take on any more nutrition. I had to run.
Alan and I barely spoke. All I could hear was a cacophony of noise interspersed with Alan giving terce instructions. “Stay with me. Left turn. Fuck I meant right. Now we’re going left.”
I think it was around mile 24 that I asked, “are we going to go under 11?” “If we can hold 9:30s we have a chance,” Alan said. “Are we?” I croaked out.” “Almost,” was all Alan said. To me that meant “Speed the fuck up!”
I tilted my head slightly forward, pumped my arms a little harder and gritted my teeth. “You’ve been in more pain than this before! There are people out there who aren’t as lucky as you who can’t quit. What about that 13 year old boy you just learned about who has cancer? You think he’d give up just because it hurts a little bit? What would you say if you looked back on this moment years later and admitted to yourself that you’re a quitter? Do you want to be one of the best in the world or not? Come on fucker it’s only a mile! This shit’s easy!”
I heard people yelling nonsensical things like “The finish line’s just there! It’s around the next corner.”
I heard the boom of music and the sound of an announcer on a loud speaker. Was that Mike Reilly’s voice? Then Alan and I turned left and a wall of noise closed in on either side of me. Something in my head yelled “GO!!!” And I called on every last bit of strength I had to sprint down the finishers shoot. We hit the line and people were going insane. I heard Mike Reilly shouting something about sub 11 hours. Dad, Muriel, Cory, my dad’s friend/one of my marine corps uncles, Beto, were all screaming and yelling. Alan was yelling something asking if we’d broken 11. Then Alan and I were hugging and holding each other up.
Then our finisher medals were being hung around our necks and foil blankets being draped around our shoulders. My friends Scott, Alex, Mike, Mikey, Melissa and so many others were reaching across the barriers to hug both Alan and I. I was so exhausted I could hardly stay upright. And I was so incredibly happy and satisfied because I’d accomplished my goal of breaking 11 hours in an Ironman. Now all I wanted to was to drink some good beer and celebrate with Alan, Muriel, dad, Beto, Mike and the rest of the crew who’d pushed and supported me through the day.
Run Time: 4 hours 9 minutes 14 seconds
Total Time: 10 hours 59 minutes 17 seconds
Post race I could hardly stagger around. I was pretty delirious. It’s not often you can feel so incredibly satisfied with the result of a race. Yes, we didn’t have the swim and bike we expected. Both Alan and I agree we very well could’ve gone faster if some things had bounced our way. But then again, Ironman is a log day for everything to go right, everything to go wrong, and a long day for things to go both right and wrong and to bounce back from anything.
We spent the post race filling our bellies with beer and food. We also checked in on all of our friends who were racing. My buddy Joel snuck under 12 hours for his first Ironman. My friend and fellow visually impaired athlete Corvin crushed his first Ironman as well finishing in 12 hours 38 minutes. And so many other friends, both first timers and multi-time finishers, had strong races. The next day we all headed toward home for some much needed rest, relaxation and more food than we could fit in our stomachs 🙂
And so my 2018 competitive season comes to a close. And what a year it was. I will be doing a year in review in a few weeks but I’ll go ahead and say now that this was probably my strongest year as an athlete. But I certainly didn’t do it alone. I had such an incredible team of people around me to support and push me to incredible new heights.
First and foremost, thank you to Alan Greening. Brother, we set a goal of breaking 11 hours in Arizona and accomplished that goal. And we had a ton of fun along the way! Thank you for taking the time and the risks of becoming a guide. Hope to race and train more with you again soon!
Thank you to my coach, five time World Champion, Lesley Paterson. Les, I know I missed some work outs on occasion and breaking my arm mid season set us back a bit, but you knew the right buttons to push and guided me to my strongest season. Being able to witness from afar the struggles you went through as an athlete as well helped me to continually step up my game. It’s been a real pleasure and honor to train under you as a Braveheart Athlete!
To my family who’s been incredibly supportive through this crazy journey. You guys are always there in person or in spirit no matter where the race is and are always my biggest fans and cheerleaders.
A very special thank you to Mike Melton. Bro, if you don’t take me under your wing and teach me how to be a triathlete all those years ago I don’t know where I am today. You taught me how to have fun while suffering during the course of a long day. You laid the groundwork for what we’re accomplishing now.
Thank you to all of my sponsors and supporters who allow me to make my passion a viable career (at least for now). Bubba Burger, Base Performance, Independence Run and Hike, The United States Association of Blind Athletes, Sopris Chiropractic, Team Catapult and so many others.
And as always, thank you to you all, the amazing #eyeronvision fans who continue to cheer me on from far and near. Your support is always felt and much appreciated 🙂
Now, after a short offseason, it’s time to turn my attention to representing the USA on the International stage as I attempt to qualify for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. I’m excited for this next chapter in my life but rest assured, I don’t think this’ll be my last Ironman 🙂
Until next time faithful #eyeronvision fans.