Sunday, April 10, 2005

Ironman Arizona


Francesca did it! Despite high winds on the bike course, and a tough run, she finished the inaugural Ironman Arizona around 16:36. Looking really happy, with a great big smile!!


I got up at 5:40 am to make it to the pro swim start at 6:45 am. The swim was in Tempe Town Lake, which is actually a section of a river that is dammed on both ends. I found Jen, Alexandra, Mike, and Joe, and we waited by the water's edge for the start cannon.

A typical ironman swim start is often described as a "human washing machine" due to the churning water, arms, and legs. Sometimes a determined person will attempt to swim right over you, their stroke crashing on your body, or perhaps you'll get kicked or nudged. I'm not sure where Francesca was in the melee, but we watched the mass head off for a loop.

Swim Start

She's in there somewhere!

We walked over to a vantage point along the transition zone, to spot her on the way to pick up her T1 bag and head into the changing tent. We expected about a 1:15 swim, and she beat that by a few minutes. We waved and she grinned when she saw us, as Alexandra, Jen, and I were wearing our moose hats.

Moose Hat

Jen, modeling our moose hats.

After she went by, I raced to the bike start, hoping to catch her at the mount line. Soon enough I spotted her getting on the bike and screamed as she went past, starting the 112 mile bike segment.

At this point, I met with Alexandra and we drove over to volunteer at bike special needs (a stop along the bike course where the athlete can retrieve a bag they pre-pack with whatever: food, extra clothes, spare equipment). We both signed up to help at this aid station, which was along an out-and-back section of the three loop bike course.

Bike Special Needs

Each white bag has a race number and corresponds to an athlete. There were about 40 different stations - potentially 50 numbers at each. Not every athlete left a special needs bag.

I settled into working my section, and delivered bags as needed. As the athlete arrived near the start, they would call out their race number. Volunteers would scream it out and repeat it up the line, until it reached the appropriate spot. Ideally we'd have their bags ready by the time the reached us.

Alexandra and I got to Bike Special Needs too late to see Francesca heading out on loop one, but around 10:00 am I spotted her heading in. With a quick consultation of the race map, we estimated she would return for loop two in about 90 minutes. Sure enough, she showed up just a few minutes after 11:30 am and picked up her special needs bag.

Getting her bag

This is about halfway (mileage wise) through the bike segment.

Some athletes stopping at special needs grabbed their bag on the fly, balancing it on their handlebars and holding it open with their teeth while they pedaled away, steering with one hand and fishing through it with the other. Some athletes took their time, like #1828. She pulled up to the aid station next to mine and we didn't have her bag ready. She said "don't worry, I'm not in any kind of hurry". I liked what she wrote on her race number and took a picture.

Race Number Message

In another hour I spotted Francesca as she headed in on loop two, so I could calculate a return at 2:00 pm, heading out on loop three, and another pass at 3:00 pm, heading in on loop three.

Unfortunately, the weather conditions were taking a toll on everybody. It was very windy - we had to anchor boxes and bags with rocks and stones to keep them from blowing away. The palm tree across the street from me lost big chunks of bark to gusts, and I knew it would be a very difficult time on the bike course due to the winds. I was expecting to see Francesca at 2:00 pm, but it was more like 2:45 pm, as bike special needs was winding down. We stayed open longer but eventually folded up around 3:30 pm, and I still hadn't see her pass us on the way in from loop three. It was a little cloudy so it wasn't as hot as it could have been, but the winds were picking up. Alexandra and I stayed at the station and waited to cheer her on. Finally, around 4:15 pm we saw her and shouted some encouragement as she passed.

Bike Course

Heading back in from loop three.

I drove us back to the transition zone, and dropped off Alexandra while I went to park. By the time I got that settled and met up with everybody, it was a little after 5:00 pm. Ironman triathlons have cutoff times, when you need to be finished with a particular segment. For example, you must be done with the swim by 2:20 into the race. Similarly, you must be done with the bike 10 hours in to the race (some allow 10:30) or 5:00 pm. The event ends at midnight, 17 hours after the start. It was a little past 5:00 pm and I saw a few athletes finishing the bike, and it appeared as though they weren't stopped from continuing. Perhaps the race director allowed some grace time as the conditions were very windy.

I found out Francesca made the bike cutoff, finished transition, and was out on the run course. The run was a double loop, and due to the route, the start, mile 4, 13, and 17 were all the same area. Joe was out on the course shadowing her, riding her bike, calling in every now and then to inform us of her progress. We got the call that she would be passing by in a few minutes, so we moved and gathered along the course to cheer.

At Mile 4

After she passed, Joe continued to scout while Mike, Alexandra, Jen, and I... went to eat dinner. While we were eating, at 7:45 pm, Joe called us to relay a progress report - she was at mile 11 and having a tough time. I did some quick math and realized that starting the run at 5:00 pm gave her 7 hours for the marathon, which meant she would ideally be past the transition zone and starting lap two no later than 8:30 pm, in order to have the best chance to finish before the cutoff. I announced this to the table and we all realized that it would be close, but still very possible.

We finished up dinner and went back to the spot along mile 4/13/17, to wait for her to pass again. We brought our leftover pizza for Joe, who had basically been eating race nutrition (gels, bars, sports drinks) - he wolfed down the pizza and got back to monitoring Francesca for us. By now it was dusk, and runners would move by carrying glow sticks and other reflective material. We broke out glow sticks of our own and some kazoos, to cheer as she ran by. She looked good, still smiling and making steady progress.

At Mile 17

As she faded into the distance, Joe followed, keeping a good distance so as to not draw her a penalty for assistance. We went to sit in the stands and watch finishers for a while, to see regular people who struggled all day long finish the event. All types passed by: young, old, parents with kids, couples holding hands. Some were limping, some smiled and waved as the crowd cheered them on, some stared vacant and glassy-eyed at the finish line, seemingly unaware of the crowd. We even heard a marriage proposal: a man who finished earlier was given the mike to pop the question to his girlfriend who just finished. She accepted!

At 9:50 pm Joe called and said she was coming along great, and was currently at mile 19. I couldn't help it but immediately began calculating times, and realized that and 11 or 12 minute mile would bring her to the finish around 11:15 pm, 45 minutes before the cutoff.

We cheered more finishers, getting more and more concerned as time advanced towards 17 hours and the midnight cutoff. 11:15 pm came and went, and Jen went to call up Joe to find out what was up. She relayed the message that Francesca was last spotted at mile 23 some time ago, entering a park with a few others, and none had exited yet. We hoped the small group she was near could stick together and help motivate each other to the finish...

At last, at about 11:30 pm, Joe called and said he reacquired her at mile 26. She was turning onto the final loop around the block and all of us instantly knew she would make it! Jennifer and I ran over to a nearby section to shout more encouragement at her as she appeared around the corner. We also found Brian and Rod, who also traveled to specate IMAZ, and the group of us made as much noise as we could when she passed.

Jen and I raced back to the stands, knowing she'd be coming up the finish chute any minute. She ran by looking excited, as Mike Reilly (the Voice of the Ironman, i.e. the race announcer) proclaimed her as an Ironman!

In the finish chute...

After that, all of us gathered to take pictures with her. She was very animated, whirling around and looking like she needed a few miles of a cooldown run. ;) After lots of hugs and pics, she mentioned she was feeling a bit dizzy so Joe, Jen, and I accompanied her to the medical tent. Inside, the doctor checked her blood pressure and said she was fine, but probably just needed to hydrate. Francesca asked if she could lay down for a bit, so we found a cot and she stretched out.

Ironman Francesca!

As a precaution, they administered an IV and one liter of saline. We talked for a bit but it was clear she was fine and just needed to rest and drink, so Jen and I said our farewells to her and left her with Joe, who would drive her home when she felt better.

The next morning at the airport, I called and left her a message with two questions: are you getting in line for IMAZ 2006? And where on your body will you get your M-dot tattoo? ;)

Anyway, this was great success all the way around! Francesca exceeded her own expectations and finished IMAZ, under some harsh conditions. I will be scouring the usual websites looking for more race reports to read. Plus, I want to hear how it went from Francesca's viewpoint, especially the windy bike course and what can only have been an extremely difficult run.

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