Monday, November 27, 2017

A Sherpa in Arizona

On November 19th, my friend Dan competed in the Ironman Arizona, in Tempe. A couple of months prior to that, he asked me to join him down there to help, or to be his "sherpa." I gladly agreed.

Dan and I met back in 2010, when we both ran with the Mill Creek Running & Multisport Club, in Mill Creek, WA (just north of Seattle). I was training for my first (and only, so far) marathon, and he had recently begun training for running and triathlon races. At that time, our running paces were similar (now, he's MUCH faster than me). We're the same age (well, he's 3 weeks older than me, and I don't let him forget that) and we have that, and other things, in common, so we get along pretty well. Unlike me, he has managed to avoid major injuries over the years. Also, unlike me, he has become damn fast in all three triathlon disciplines.

He has completed 4 Ironman distance races, and has had a pretty good training year in 2017, so he decided to take a shot at qualifying for Kona (the Ironman World Championships, held in Kona, Hawaii in October). Since Arizona tends to be a fast course, he signed up shortly after a tough race at the final Ironman Coeur d'Alene, in late August (where I also acted as his sherpa, since I live 30 minutes from there.)

View from our first uninhabitable crash pad

We arrived in Phoenix on Thursday, Nov. 16th, stayed one night in an Air BnB (an old motel, not a house), had to bail due to a horrible smell (like they overdid the air freshener to hide a nasty, rotting odor), and luckily relocated to a very nice Hilton, about 2.5 miles from the race start.

The weather was about what one would expect this time of year: chilly mornings and evenings, but sunny, warm days with highs in the low-mid 80s.

Saturday was bike check-in day, explore Ironman Village day, and practice swim in the murky lake day. Dan described it as swimming in a cup of coffee.

We ran part of the run course together on Friday, after a morning swim at a very nice outdoor pool in Scottsdale. Race morning came very early (for me, anyway, who isn't as much of an early riser as Dan is). We got up at quarter past four, got ready, got our coffee from the lobby (no continental breakfast THAT early), and found free parking in a large indoor parking garage not far from the race start.

Blurry. That's how I felt at 5 in the morning.



Pre-dawn in Tempe


It was just below 50°f when we arrived. Ironman Village was a zoo, as expected. With over 3,300 participants, plus hundreds of volunteers and thousands of family, friends & spectators, I would guess there were close to 10,000 people all crammed into a relatively small area. Security was tight, so I wasn't able to help as much as I had hoped with his gear. After taking care of a couple of preparatory tasks, like topping off the air in his tires, he gave me his backpack and tire pump. I wished him good luck, and he was off to the swim start area.

Do you see Dan? He's the one in the green cap...
The swim area was incredibly crowded. I managed to find Dan before he put on his swim cap, but lost him when I took this pic. Being a very fast swimmer, he was in this 1 hour group (it was a rolling start). At 6:50am, they were off.

Dan exited the water with a very nice 59 minute swim leg (2.4 miles), putting him 2nd in his division (50-54). Going with the averages over the last few years, he would need a top 3 age division finish to lock up a Kona slot. So far, so good.

Dan leaving T1

The bike leg was three out-and-back laps, on a relatively flat course. As I tracked his splits, I saw that they were all over the place. Some of them relatively slow (~17 mph), others insanely fast (28 mph). I found out later that the headwinds on the way out were brutal and unrelenting.

Dan, after 1 lap (37 miles)

I hiked up to the top of Hayden Butte (a large hill right in town) and was able to witness both part of the bike leg, and the brutal wind (you can hear it in this clip):

Just east of the bike turn around
After a 5:27 bike leg (20.6 mph avg) and a 5:15 transition, Dan headed out for the marathon. It was now in the low 80's, with no shade on the run course.

Because swimming 2.4 miles, then cycling 112 miles isn't enough...

Despite his apparent slow start out of T2, Dan made it to the first run checkpoint (2 miles) running at about a 7:20/mile pace. That was faster than he was planning. He was a bit behind pace for his 10 hour race goal, but I didn't know at the time just how much the bike leg had cooked his legs. His paced slowed over the next several miles, although he was still averaging about 8:30/mi pace through the first six or seven miles. Gradually, he was forced to walk/run, then finally just walk. I kept waiting to see him arrive at checkpoints on the tracker, and he would be several minutes late to each. At first, I thought it was a glitch in the app. Alas, he made it to the half marathon point (where I was waiting) and called it a day. Disappointed, yes, but after a very solid effort on a tough day. He could have finished the race, but this was a "Kona or Bust" effort for him, so there was no point in walking another half marathon just to get a medal.

Consolation beers

He claims he's done chasing the Kona dream (I'm skeptical), but he is going to give the full ironman distance a rest for a while, and will focus on more speed for shorter races.

We both flew out of Phoenix on Monday, tentatively leaving the warm sun behind.

I've learned that never saying never is a good idea, but I'm almost positive that I shall never do a full ironman race, for a number of reasons. I'm quite content with the vicarious, yet inspired, life of an Ironman Sherpa.

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