Round and Round: The 2011 Ironman Arizona Race Report

I know, I know. It’s been nearly a week since I did an Ironman, and no race report has yet to be posted. While I would like to say that I have been delayed because I was busy escaping  back across the border from Mexico after saving the world from a salsa related terrorist plot, my hold up was caused by much less Michael Bay type reasons. Work and work.

However, now it’s Thanksgiving, I have a fresh second glass of Mimosa, and I’m in my pajamas. Let’s get this adventure started. Just to FYI, I’m still waiting for my ASI pics to come in. Once I get them, I’ll put them up.


As always, I want my readers to be informed. If you are looking for a cut and dry experience of the race, focusing only on hill grades and PaHR, then you want to skip ahead. I race and write for fun. I assume my readers have never done an Ironman or are thinking about doing this Ironman and need an inside scoop to the race.

I had my best taper ever leading up to the race. My entire tape workout was laid out by my Endurance Nation plan. For the last week, just had a small one hour ride, 30 minute run, and some spin ups. The rest of the time was used traveling and taking care of the logistics for the race. Diet was great this time also. Instead of going freaking Wall-E on junk food like before CDA, I was able to get smarter calories. I stuck mostly to things like whole grain chips, fruit, smoothies, fish, bread, and …..liquid bread.

I left Montana on Thursday morning at 0600. Mother Nature sent me off in true Montana style: 4 inches of fresh snow at 20 degrees. You know you’re in Montana when you have to brush snow off your luggage before you weight it at baggage check in.

Air travel went surprisingly splendidly. Didn’t get stuck next to the toilet. Didn’t get stripped search again. No cancellations or delays to fix the toilet paper dispenser in the head. Landing at Sky Harbor was quite the environment shock: sunny skies and temps in the mid 70’s. I made my way to the luggage pick up, took a deep breath, threw some salt over my shoulder, apologized to the salty compression sock wearing guy behind me, and waited. I had already lost my luggage once this year on a flight, and as you can imagine, not having your shoes can make having a good Ironman difficult.  Thankfully, the Ironman deities were merciful, and my luggage showed up in less than 30 seconds.

Beautiful sunrise

It is about a ten minute bus ride to the car rental. I rented a small mid-size from Budget for five days at a cost of about 200 dollars. That’s with all the “were just basically screwing you” taxes. A new experience for me, the company was pretty pushy about getting me to buy coverage for the car. Thanks but no thanks. I may be Asian, but I took courses in blinker usage.

In an attempt to save some cash, I stayed at the Aloft Tempe. It was about a mile from the transition/expo. Rate was about 200 a night with a 2 night minimum. Check in was pleasant, everything looked clean, and room was plenty large for this single traveler. They also have their own bar, pool, and kitchen with several foods for purchase.

After checking in, I had planned on getting on the bike to experience some of the course. There was only one problem. I had no bike. As you might remember from this post, I decided to ship my bike to Arizona using a cardboard caddy and FedEx. I checked the tracking information, and it said that my bike had been out for delivery since 0420 that morning. So the fact that my ride wasn’t there was a bit nerve wracking. I waited, waited, and waited. After tearing out most of my gray hair, I finally got the word that my infamous yellow eye sore was downstairs. Fortunately, the box still looked like a wedge of cheese. Even better, my bike inside still looked like a bike. An in depth inspection showed no damage, even with the wheels., you win this round!

Not too shabby after a four day adventure.

After getting settled into my abode, I headed out on foot to the expo. For those considering staying at the Aloft next year, here is some advice: drive to the expo. There is a large, easily accessible parking deck right next to the transition/expo. Walking from the Aloft to the expo involves 20 minutes of the run course and trust me, you will not want to repeat that more than you have to during the race weekend. More on that later.

20 sweaty minutes later, I arrived at the expo. It was pretty dead on Thursday afternoon. Athlete check in had no line whatsoever, and I was out of there in about 20 minutes. Once again, I forgot to renew my USAT membership, so I purchased a one day pass for ten dollars.

That evening, I met up with some of my Endurance Nation teammates for a dinner at Monti’s. Monti’s is right across from the expo and it looks older than, oh I don’t know….the moon. My kind of place. It was great to put faces to the names I had been conversing with online.

Kicking back

On Friday, I hit the expo and came across a bunch of great deals. That is something I hadn’t actually taken advantage of before. Something to bear in mind if you’re planning on some new goodies before a race. Friday afternoon, I met up with team for a test ride out on the Beeline Highway. You can read about that here.

Heading out for a test ride.

On Saturday, it was all about laying low. I tried to swim, but that didn’t work out so well. Read about that here. Bike check in was also a little more complicated than prior thanks to the new bike photograph policy. Later that evening, I enjoyed my first actual Ironman dinner. It was more fun that I thought, but I admit the food was lacking. In a stroke of brilliance, an ASU football game was scheduled on the night before the Ironman. Fortunately, despite the fireworks with each touchdown, I was able to sleep comfortably. I turned in about 9:00 and woke up at 0400.

Race Morning

Thanks to five different alarms (it was like having a seizure in Toys-R-Us), I woke up right on time at 0400. After the necessary bathroom homage, I made a cup of instant oat meal and gulped it down. I packed up my 2 special needs bags, morning clothes bag, and jumped in the car. The aforementioned parking garage opened at 0500. For ten dollars, you could park there all day. Despite being race morning, I had no traffic during the four minute drive from the hotel to the garage. I even got a spot on the first level.

I have to remember a flashlight next time.

Checked on the bike first. As always, I was done with that in about 1 minute. It still perplexes me; everyone else seemed to be in there forever…repainting their bikes or something. Got body marked with no line or obscene drawings. The bathrooms did have an impressive line; at least my back teeth were able to get some pre-race swimming in. About 30 minutes prior to start, I chained into my wetsuit.

Special needs bag drop.

For my swim gear, I went with a 2XU Elite wetsuit, TYR goggles, Neoprene cap, and Timex watch. No booties for this guy. With about 30-20 minutes to go, we started to get corralled into one corner of transition as there is only one entrance to the swim start. With 15 minutes to go, they open the gate and I walked up to the edge of a dock where you jump in. Some people jumped right in, but I figure why wade around in the water any longer than I need to. I waited until ten minutes to go and then I literally cannonballed in. Hey, if I’m going to jump, might as well make a big splash.

From the pre-race chatter, I had expected the water to be something like CDA…. or my ex-girlfriend: ICY COLD. But to my surprise, I thought the water was pleasant. From the swim entrance, it is about a 200 yard swim to the actual start line; made for a great warm up. I made it out under the Mill Street Bridge with about five minutes to go. Unlike CDA, where we did a reverse beach storm, this was a “deep water” start. The nice thing about this was that everyone was pretty good about finding a spot with good space to initiate the swim stroke. No instant bottle necking. With a minute or two to go, one of the best parts of the day started: the singing of the National Anthem. This was followed up by some ACDC I think. My hand went to the start button on my watch. A boom from a cannon. And it was Ironman time.

Swim: 2.4 miles, 1:13:43, 3:23 PR

Okay, I’m horizontal and I have room to move my arms; a good start. I began stroking and I am quickly on top of the person in front of me. But we are moving and I have space to my left and right. I quickly dodge to the side and I’m stroking some more. Unbelievably, after about 30 seconds, I had my face down and was full on moving. That elation was short lived though as I found myself on top of someone again. Another dodge. This cycle continued for only about five –ten minutes.

For some reason, I got a little more beat up than usual this go around. I took an elbow to my left cheek first. Then I felt a sharp scratch against my toe nail that made me wonder if I had just lost a toe. Maybe I’m too nice. When I swim up to someone, I try to go around. Versus, you know, just plowing over people like a rabid dolphin. I had planned to draft as much as possible, but much to my surprise, I couldn’t even seem my OWN hands out in front of me. So much for that idea.

After ten minutes though, I was free and I settled into my game plan. I focused on counting strokes, staying on top of the water, sighting regularly, and working smooth. My latest thing to imagine those sculls streaking through the water: I want to be that smooth. I made the turn around point around 30:00, right where I wanted to be. No signs of cramping or temperature issues. Felt relaxed with minimal effort. Made the turns right on track and headed back. Again, plenty of open space with only intermittent collisions.

I made the final turn for home around 1:10. Right around then, I came up next to someone and a sudden, sharp, scratching sensation went across my left jugular in the neck. This was no ordinary scratch: I felt like someone had just shaved my necked with a cheese grater. I stopped briefly to put my hand on my neck: no blood. Good sign. I figured if I was bleeding to death, it would be better to do so on the dock than 200 yards from the dock, so I made for the exit as quickly as possible.

The swim exit is a dock with a very high foot hold. In order to get out, you have to hold your hand up to a volunteer who then pulls you out. Up my hand went, and out I was. Standing up right, I didn’t see anything red spraying out of my neck and I wasn’t collapsing. More good signs. I made it up the steps quickly and off I went to the strippers. For the last few races, I kept getting my wetsuit stuck on my watch. So while running, I took my watch off and shoved it between my teeth. I then got my arms out of the top of my suit. I made it to the strippers, quickly laid on my back, grabbed my shorts, and the strippers pulled my wetsuit off without any unnecessary nudity. For the first time in the Ironman, I manage to make it out of the swim transition with my cap, goggles, neoprene cap, wetsuit, watch, and shorts. Scratch another thing off my list of goals.

T1: 10:34

Found my Bike gear bag without any difficulties. Into the changing tent I went. I remembered to pack a towel this time (thank you Aloft) so no trying to don clothes while wet. Shoes on no problem. No shivering. Glasses on easily without breaking. Then…I got stuck. For some reason, I couldn’t get my damn arm warmers on. Sure they were tight, but for some reason, it was like trying to pull a calf sock over a Honda Civic. A punked, body kit Honda Civic. After taking enough time to sew a new pair of warmers, I had them on. Next up, I got sun screened by the volunteers. Thank you ladies; I hope it was good for you. Call me. The helmet went on, I grabbed my bike, and off I went into the wild blue yonder.

Bike: 112 miles, 6:04:21, 37:51 PR

Mounting went without a problem and off I went. Yet, something didn’t feel right. A quick check and I realized that my helmet didn’t seem tight on my head. I figured it was just nerves and kept trucking for about half a mile. After my helmet almost fell off my head while taking a drink, I knew something was amiss. Rather than risking my helmet falling apart and getting disqualified, I stopped on the side of the road. For some reason, my helmet strap was extremely loose. I checked to make sure it was mine as I knew the guy next to me in the changing tent had the same helmet. Yep, #1367. I adjusted the strap and then put it back on. A little too tight. So I pulled a little at the strap, and then….SNAP. That was it I thought. I can’t race without a helmet, and if the snap just broke, this is the end of my day. I glanced around on the ground and three feet from me I could see the snap, still intact. Thank God it’s red. I quickly reattached it to the strap, adjusted it as best as I could, and back off I went. It wasn’t perfect still, my helmet kept riding back, but it worked. In retrospect, I bet my changing tent buddy tried to put my helmet on, felt like it wasn’t adjusted right, and began to fiddle with it until he realized he had the wrong helmet. Thank you, newest member of the asshole race division.

For the first lap of the day, the wind was mainly in my face while going out and uphill. At the same time, the road looked like a scene from the Tour De France. Despite everyone’s (well almost everyone’s) best attempts, there was no preventing the inevitable drafting. I’m going to be honest, I did not try to draft and I would say I spent 90% of the ride three bike lengths away from someone in front of me. But when you have three riders side by side in front of you, there is no doubt of a draft advantage. With the group effort, I reached the far turn around like the Millennium Falcon. Around the same time, my back started to develop some familiar twinges. Okay, here we go I thought. After a prayer, I started my now well-developed routine of on bike tweaks to adjust my back.

After the flip, we had the wind at our backs while going down hill: time to jam. I’m not sure if my yellow Cervelo and I have a nice aero setup or if my amphetamines just happened to kick in, but I was hauling it. I must have passed 20-30 people on the way back into town.  I also used the slip stream effect to zoom around people. I’m guessing this is not legal as I got a warning from an official. I’m still confused about this, but whatever. The warning came in the form of having me ride outside of the main line on the side of the road. I wasn’t alone; 1/3 of us going back into town were doing the same.

On the way back in, my data says I was averaging about 27mph. I was doing at least this speed when my next new experience in Ironman came in the form of flashing lights and hoses. Along the Beeline, there is a fire station, and the firetruck needed to get out. So here I am looking down at my computer when the next thing I see is a volunteer with his hands up approaching me at 28 mph. I hit the brakes and, of course on purpose, I performed some badass drifting and fishtailing as I came to a literal screeching hault. Fortunately, the 20 other riders behind me also stopped without creating a Tri-Thai-kabob. Back up to speed quickly and then into town. Loop 1 came in at 1:54.

Normally, my back pain comes to a peak around 2:00 into ride. While my pain started earlier, thank God, it ended earlier. Thanks to my stretching and focusing on moving my legs through their full ROM, I had almost zero back pain after the first 1.5 hours.

For the second loop, the wind had shifted to a tail wind on the way out. Knowing that I had another lap to go, I played it conservative. I just kept on my pace and near my watts, paying no attention to people passing me. I made the flip and then that wonderful tailwind shifted to a headwind. Immediately after the flip, the gusts were pretty bad. I felt like helicopter was flying over me. Thanks to some terrain shelter, the wind gusts died down after the first mile after the flip and I was able to get back into aero. I picked up my special needs bag and my Cliff Blocks plus Red Bull went down well. Around that time, I heard a motorcycle come up beside me. RUH ROH. I was about three bike lengths behind someone at that point. As it turns out, someone had been drafting me for a while and he got a personal invitation to the penalty tent. OUCH. You’re hurting  pretty bad if you need to draft off me. As I headed back into town, I was feeling pretty GREAT. Zero back pain. I noticed my watts had dropped some, but I was happy with my times. Second lap came in at 2:08.

I have to give a quick shout out to my friend Jennifer; it was great to have some personal support as I started that last lap. Thanks girl! Feeling good, I decided to step up things just a bit. I concentrated on staying aero and riding as smart as I could. Wind conditions didn’t change much at all throughout the third lap. Again, I was almost blown off my bike after the flip back to home. By the time I made it back into town, I was feeling the most fresh I had ever felt coming to the end of the bike. I couldn’t help but crack a huge smile as I rolled into transition. Final lap finished up at 2:01:54.

I have to also give a quick update on my Torhans hydration setup. Before the race, the guys from Torhans recommended I cut one leaf in the baffle to improve filling. Folks, that did it. The unit didn’t leak at all and filling was a cinch. It worked FLAWLESSLY. Thanks Torhans!

Here are the numbers:

Entire workout (120 watts):
Duration:      6:05:07 (6:08:29)
Work:          2628 kJ
TSS:           227.1 (intensity factor 0.612)
Norm Power:    127
VI:            1.06
Pw:HR:          15.82%
Pa:HR:          10.34%
Distance:      111.959 mi
Elevation Gain:        1836 ft
Elevation Loss:       1532 ft
Grade:         0.1 %  (304 ft)
Min    Max    Avg
Power:           0    418    120     watts
Heart Rate:      128    141    136     bpm
Cadence:         30    206    85     rpm
Speed:           0    31.6    18.4     mph
Pace             1:54    0:00    3:16     min/mi
Altitude:        933    1600    1282     ft
Crank Torque:    0    913    120     lb-in

T2: 6:50

Getting dressed for the run was much easier than T1. Quickly into my shoes, hat, and belt. I mixed up my nutrition with some fresh water, got some new sunscreen, and off I went.

Run: 26.2 miles, 4:45:24

As I started the run, I could tell something was wrong. My gut was heavy and sloshing. While I was moving at the right pace, around 9:45, it seemed way too hard. I figured it was just my legs settling in, so I focused on keeping the pace until the first aid station, which I expected at mile one.

Buzz went my watch: 1 mile down. Per my months of training, this is when I would walk 20 seconds while taking in nutrition before settling back into pace. But something was wrong. I was not in an aid station. I was in the middle of nowhere. Now, one might assume that since I was carrying my own nutrition, I would just stop and do my thing, and then set off. But let’s face it, by this point in the day, one doesn’t think too clearly. I decided to keep going until I finally found an aid station. Somewhere between miles 1-2, I was finally greeted by a ASU coed holding a cup of Ironman Perform. I took my nutrition in and set off. I love sponges and I grabbed some to cool my head and shoulder off. BLISS.

My happiness was short lived though. Again, running felt way too hard. My stomach seemed to be worsening. Worse, my watch said I was slowing up to 10:30-10:50 already. Now realizing that I was facing 25 more miles of pain and confusion, my game face started to fall apart.

The next aid station, which was not at mile 2, was on a hill. I have been doing better on hills and I took some people in. That felt good. Even better, I saw the Ford motivational computer display at the top. Some buddies of mine had said they sent me a “special message” before the race and I had been looking forward to reading it all day. I definitely needed it at this point. Unfortunately, as I crossed over the timing sensor, a bunch of computer language gibberish showed up on the screen. FAIL.

After crossing through the crowds of transition, I decided that I just needed to run harder. So I did. And it sucked. No matter how much I tried to HTFU, I couldn’t run faster. Forget it I thought, just keep moving. I accepted that I would be running yet another slow ass marathon.

At mile 13, I finally had to channel my inner YouTube motivation; things were looking insanely bad. I was hurting and my stomach felt like I had just eaten at Taco Hell. From what I figured, I had taken in too much fluid volume on the bike. My stomach was so rough I decided to skip my special needs bag; I didn’t want to eat anything. I finally decided to walk and just take a moment to think what was going on. Then it hit me. Folks, I really had to fart. Better out than in I say, and I let the cactus have it. It’s the dry heat! Suddenly, I felt much better. I settled back into my pace. At the next aid station, I decided to take in some Coke in an effort to settle down my stomach. After drinking latte flavored liquid all day, the carbonated Coke was like heaven in a cup.

Now with a big smiley face in my stomach, I attempted to pick up my pace. My legs were moving easier. My body was in a happy state of pain. I had been passed by some teammates earlier, and I was elated to catch back up to them. Things felt like they were really coming back together. Oddly enough, even though I felt MUCH faster, my watch was saying I was much SLOWER. I decided to forget the pace at that point; I was just happy to be moving faster than I was at CDA.

At about mile 19, the sun finally said adios. This was the first time I had ever been on the run course in the dark, and I quickly realized how unprepared I was. Some parts of the path had no lights! Fortunately, others runners came with head lamps, and I was able to follow their light beams. Despite the intermittent blindness, it was quite nice to run at night, amongst the city lights….when they were turned on. The temps dropped but it was just enough that I didn’t need any more sponges or douses with water.

With Endurance Nation, our goal is to keep running no matter what after mile 18. Looking at the pace after the fact, I can’t say I was running, but I was moving. Still, I was feeling good and able to pass about 100 people in the last eight miles. This is despite having run the same course twice by that point. If there is one complaint I have about Ironman Arizona, its that repetitive three loop run course: HORROR.

Finally, after about 4:45 of getting to know myself more than ever, I came into the turn into the final stretch for the finish. It wasn’t quite as long as the one at CDA, but I was sure happy enough to see it. Despite the pain during the run, I already knew I had achieved my goal for the day: to have fun. I was beaming. Soon white barricades surrounded me, hands reached out for high fives, Mike Reilly butchered my name, and a volunteer caught me. I was home. If you want an idea of what the finish line is like, check out this amazing finish this year..2 seconds before the time cut off.

Synopsis: 12:20:52, PR by 55:04

Even though comparing CDA and Tempe courses is like comparing apples and oranges, I seemed to have made real progress this go around. I can’t really explain my swim. Ever since CDA season, my pool paces have been consistently slower. I had anticipated a 1:17-1:18 swim at the best. Needless to say, I’m shocked by the 1:13. Maybe it was the better spacing or temperature? Either way, I’ll take it.

Looking at the bike numbers above, I was WAY too conservative; my goal pNorm was 141! One of my main goals was to be more consistent and I’m thrilled with my VI of 1.06. My VI at CDA was a mind blowing 1.22 (meaning very inefficient with lots of coasting). While I went conservatively, that probably was a good thing judging from my performance on the run. I am also stoked about not having any significant back pain during the whole bike experience. It was an outstanding ride for me. Im looking forward to giving it more on the next go around.

As for the run, I’ll say this was another learning experience.  There was significant discrepancies between what my watch and my body were telling me. Per the official timing by Ironman, I was moving at my goal pace exactly for the first 13 miles. This was the 13 miles when I felt horrible, I felt demoralized, and I was apparently carrying an entire propane tank of gas in my tummy. On top of that, when I felt significantly faster and was passing people on the second half, my pace was way down to upper 11:00s. This is with walking the aid stations mind you. I guess, I felt worse during the first part because I was moving faster. Even though I felt like I was moving faster in the second half, it really was because I felt better moving slower. Amazing. I have a lot to be gained in my running it appears; this should be a fun year. I will apologize ahead of time to the people who take care of the grass around the local track.

Ever since CDA, my one goal for this race was to have fun. Ladies and gents, I can say I had a BLAST. I savored the sight of an orange buoy passing by me while taking a well-placed, half goggle breath during the swim. Running out of bike gears on the downhill back into town was better than flying.  Running under the lights of the Mill Street Bridge is something I won’t soon forget. Thank you for a great time Tempe.

One more thing, I want to say thank you to all my friends and family. This is an individual sport, but I couldn’t do these things without the backing of all of you. This race was especially tough as my family wasn’t able to make it this time. So all those Facebook messages and shout out from friends on the course; they meant the WORLD to me. From the bottom of my heart, thank you so much for keeping me moving forward.

What’s next? Well, believe it or not, I’m kind of tired of doing the whole grad school, full time job, raising three kids, Ironman thing. Slightly. So, no Ironman for me next year. The next one on the radar is Ironman Lake Placid in 2013. But I’m not retired. Far from it. Right now, I’m concentrating on eating as much Turkey as physically possible. Then, it’s time to start thinking about a swim from an island in San Fransisco bay next June.

About Ironvan

From couch potato to Ironman triathlete in 2 years.

Posted on November 24, 2011, in Race Reports and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Awesome work, Dr. Van! Congratulations on your PR and I hear the cool kids are thinking about Florida in 2013.

  2. Youuuu are phenomenal. And PSSSH Florida. San Juan is where it’s at!!

  3. That was probably the most comprehensive race report I have ever read. Wow good stuff. Keep up the good work.

    Thomas Gerlach
    Professional Triathlete

    Save 10% at with Coupon Code “TGER-S”

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