Thursday, June 20, 2013

Race Report: Ironman Arizona

"How was it?"

It's a simple question that I've heard many times since I returned from Arizona; yet even after being asked dozens of times, my brain begins to churn rapidly each time.  My answer varies depending on the audience.  Do they really want to know?  Do they want to hear details of what it's like to travel 140.6 miles only on the power of one's own arms and legs?  Or, are they asking to be polite, hoping for a short and sweet, "it was fun."  After gauging my audience, I reply; usually I offer up an "it was unforgettable" or "it was an awesome day."  Those inquisitors who really want to know more don't settle for my wimpy answer.  Instead, they follow up with more meaningful and thoughtful questions about how I felt throughout the day, whether or not I ever considered quitting, or what it felt like to cross the finish line.  The answers by the way are: It depends on what time of day you're wondering about.  Absolutely. And, unparalleled triumph.

My typical recounting of the "Ironman Experience" is an exercise in restraint.  Let's face it: I trained for a year, then spent an entire day pouring every drop of my being into completing a relatively absurd task.  Am I any different now that "I am an Ironman" than I was beforehand (being able to remind my wife and close friends that I can do X, Y, or Z because I'm a frickin Ironman doesn't count)?  On the surface, the answer is "of course not."  I'm just like you, or anyone else, and am really no different than I was prior to November 18, 2012.  But deep down, becoming an Ironman (not just the feat, but the journey) has changed me.

I'll brush aside the fear of sounding lame and just lay it out there: accomplishing this feat has truly led me to believe that anything is possible if you put your mind to it.  Many of us grew up with our parents telling us that we can do anything, be anything, if we'd just try hard enough.  Sadly though, we didn't all become astronauts, firemen, doctors, lawyers, or pro-athletes.  Victories in life don't come easily and at some point when we each accept our lot we come to grips with the fact that we are what we are; not everyone can be a chief when the world needs lots of Indians.

Alright, enough of the hyperbole, I know I called this a race report so let's get to it:

My journey to Ironman Arizona officially began in November of 2011 but it was Tuesday, November 12 when I actually stepped foot on a plane and headed to AZ.  Well ahead of me was my two-wheeled companion, having safely arrived via UPS in its carefully-packed, locked case.  This being the first time having to travel significantly for a race, it was hard to let go of my bike but I trusted she'd be waiting for me.  When I attempted to pack her up a week earlier in the cardboard bike box I'd secured, I struggled mightily to pack her all in.  Though I eventually succeeded I couldn’t bear the thought of shipping it in such cramped fashion.  A day prior to packing it up I had been offered a great deal on a used bike-case but balked at spending any more coin before the race.  With the words penny-wise and dollar-foolish echoing in the back of my mind I decided to pull the trigger on the case; the peace of mind and the protection of my rather pricey carbon toy was well worth it. 

Packing for the trip to AZ was harder than anything I'd packed for before (including international trips that were several weeks long).  Even though I knew I'd have a chance to get anything I'd forgotten, I worked carefully using the packing list I had created to make sure I didn't miss a thing.  With my futon laid flat I sorted my clothing and gear into swim, bike, and run piles and realized just how much stuff I'd amassed in my 1+ year in the sport.

With all my belongings packed up I flew to Arizona with my father; we have relatives in the area so he'd have the week to fit in some family time before the race.  I was glad to have the company on the long flight and after we'd landed safely we grabbed our rental car before heading to my cousin's house.  The plan was for me to spend a couple of nights at their house prior to joining the Tri Locos at the rented condo.   I hadn't seen my cousins in a couple of years so I was looking forward to having some time to hang and catch up.  By the time Dad and I arrived we'd had a long day of travel; despite the time change (it was late in NY by then) we hung out talking for a while before finally turning in for the night.

Race Week
Prior to arranging my travel plans I debated how far in advance I needed to arrive in Arizona.  Originally I had thought that I was going too early but flying in on Tuesday of race week ended up being just right.  There was far more to do during the week than I anticipated and the time flew by quickly.

At Lake Saguaro
On Wednesday morning I met up with the Tri Locos for a short, easy run on a portion of the IMAZ race course.  It was great to see all their familiar faces and be surrounded by the Loco colors.  After the run it was on to Lake Saguaro about 30 minutes outside of Tempe for a short open water swim.  The goal of the swim was simply to get used to the Arizona water temperature.  Compared to my final few swims outside (as the NY winter began to creep in) the water temperature felt extremely comfortable.  While several Locos adjusted to the colder water temp I was quick to share that this was nothing compared to New York - words I'd regret uttering about 5-days later.

Thursday it was time to check-in at the race site.  We were among the first groups of folks to arrive and the short line moved quickly.  The volunteers and race coordination crew were ├╝ber-efficient and the process was a breeze.  Before long I'd filled out the necessary papers, received my official wristband, and had been given my new Ironman backpack (a nice gift for my hefty registration fee).
Score: "free" backpack
After registration all participants are (conveniently) dumped right in front of the official merchandise tent.  WARNING: Anyone who signs up for their first Ironman should account for the extra dough you'll almost undoubtedly spend on gear.  I did more than my fair share of damage in the tent making sure I'd have plenty of apparel to help remember my day.  Next time around I don't plan to go so crazy in there but for my first Ironman I have no regrets.  A little tip:  keep in mind that after a few weeks you can often find race apparel discounted on Ironman's website.  The downside is that there's a chance you may have issues finding your size but it's probably worth the gamble for some items.  My future tactic will probably be to buy the one thing I would be disappointed if I couldn't get after the fact and press my luck (no whammies) on the others.

The next couple of days are sort of a blur.  The things which stand out are another trip to the lake (mostly for a Tri Loco group photo - expertly taken by photographer Danny with choreography help from the White Lantern) and the demo bike ride on the race course.  I'd put my bike together the day beforehand so I was looking forward to saddling up and making sure everything was alright.  Unfortunately, things didn't feel right during the ride but there was plenty of time to make things right before the race.  A trip to the TriSports.com store (conveniently located adjacent to the race expo area) led to some diagnoses and solutions.  A new chain ended up being the answer to my problems and I was now officially ready to roll.

Friday night marked the formal start of race weekend.  First there was the tri team gathering (World Triathlon Corporation is launching a new team program to emphasis the importance of teams within the individual sport of triathlon).  After that was the athlete dinner complete with remarks from Mike Reilly, the Race Director, and others.  After packing away my obligatory carb-loaded dinner we were shown some inspirational video clips and walked through the race rules.  Being my first race I wouldn't have considered skipping the briefing, but I learned little sitting there that I hadn't read in the athlete's guide.

Somewhere in between Friday and Saturday was the transition bag-packing process.  It was during this process that the magnitude of Ironman really hit me.  This was a new experience for me and I was glad to have the support of some tenured Ironmen (and Ironwomen) to get me through it.  Fellow Loco (White Lantern) and I each took one side of the pool table in our condo to spread out our bags.  I had written out exactly what I'd need for each portion of the day and began to put the appropriate gear on top of (and then into) each bag.  The bags would be dropped off on Saturday and guarded overnight.  What I didn't realize was that I would have access to my T1 and T2 bag on race morning, which would have relieved me of some Saturday stress.
I'm sure the condo owners envisioned this for their pool table!
Jumping in for the practice swim
Saturday morning was the official practice swim.  One day before at the expo I had scored a new sleeveless wetsuit on sale and my shoulders loved their newfound liberation.  I'd become infatuated with the idea of swimming in my new suit and the practice swim was the time to test the sleeveless suit and the separate sleeves I'd picked up.  The water was pretty chilly but I felt pretty good for the 15 minutes (clearly I'm beginning to hint at something here) I was in the water.  I even simulated the race start by treading for about 5 minutes before swimming the short loop.

Saturday afternoon I helped coordinate the placement and drop off of the two tents my cousins provided for the Tri Loco spectating crew.  As part of the new team-emphasis there was a special area designated as a "tent city" for the family and friends of those who were racing as part of a team.

In what was a pretty well-planned week Saturday afternoon brought an unexpected surprise.  While I'd always known that my wife (who was flying in on race morning), father, mother and Jodi (one of my best peoples) would be in AZ with me for the race, there was a well-coordinated plot that brought my main tri-buddy (and fellow NY Tri Loco) Jonah to AZ as well.  After my father had picked them up at the airport I walked over to meet them where they'd parked expecting only my Mom, Dad, and Jodi but there too was Jonah who'd apparently even helped play the role of travel agent for my Mom.  I knew I had good people in my life beforehand and this only reinforced that fact.

Saturday evening I gathered with my family (cousins, Aunt, Uncle, Mom, & Dad) and friends for the final supper.  Side note: I’d written the words “final supper” on the plane ride back from AZ.  I had no idea that for me this would sadly be the last supper I would ever have with my Aunt.  While I knew that she was currently part of a clinical study for a new cancer treatment, many of us were unaware of the true extent of her medical problems at the time.  As I’ve described in the past about my father, my Aunt Joan was a tough, non-complaining customer.  For many years she battled cancer and underwent a variety of surgeries and treatments, many of which took a tremendous toll on her body; her spirit though, was never defeated. 

I know it seems trivial to return to my story but I fear that I may never finish otherwise.  Fortunately, our dinner reservations were early because the meal turned out to be an outrageously long affair.  I did my best to remain calm and carry on but I'll admit to being somewhat on edge throughout the meal, particularly as it dragged on and the service faltered.  Destined to leave my angst behind I gave the manager (or maybe even owner) a little piece of my mind; she was unimpressed but I felt the weight lifted nonetheless.  Afterwards I went back to the Loco condo for some final schluffy-time.

Race Morning
The morning began bright and early as the condo residents gathered in the kitchen for our morning meals of choice; mine was coffee, a banana, a Clif Bar, and toast with peanut butter.  We each took care of the rest of our business and piled into the van.

Once we arrived at the race site I split off from the group for a few minutes.  With my headphones on it was time for me to spend a few minutes in my own private happy place (yes, this included a trip to a port-a-let well removed from the chaos of the transition area).  With my chi well intact and my jitters left behind I joined the masses to drop off my Special Needs bags and make my final preparations.

I met up with the other Locos for body marking (Coach Tim had brought number stamps to help make our numbers look legit), made sure my bike was good to go, and then found my crew for some small talk that would help each of the newbies ignore the miles that awaited us.  My family and friends arrived soon and I spent the last of my pre-race time hanging with them.

It was during this time that they unveiled their cheering uniform.  Though they could easily have just donned the Loco colors and the Tri Loco hats I'd supplied, they had to take it up a notch.  There were official Zitofsky Ironman shirts.  The Z-man thing goes back to my early days as a not-very-good-at-all little leaguer.  Not only did I have it on my baseball jersey but there was even a point in my life at which I had an "A" shaved on one side of my head and a "Z" on the other.  According to my parents the whole thing was my idea, who knows where the heck it came from.  For better or worse, my parents pretty much gave me full-reign over my styling.

But I digress (yet again)... Despite having arrived plenty early to the race site I somehow lost track of time during the final countdown and ended up rushing as I ran through my final checks: goggle fog spray, Garmin readiness, Body Glide, Chamois Butt'r, etc.).

The time had come to say my goodbyes and headed over to the "seawall" to wait for the final countdown.  By now Tempe Town Lake was littered with a sea of green and pink heads bobbing up and down.  I delayed getting into the water until the latest possible moment; finally when I could no longer delay I jumped in along with two Loco buddies with whom I'd planned a starting strategy.

Swim
The pros had long gone off and we knew the start was near; without any countdown, the starting gun caught me by surprise.  No worries though, I put my head down amongst the masses and began to swim.  Through the opaque water I could feel but not see the arms and legs which flailed about me.  In the first few minutes there was a lot of contact and I had my goggles kicked off (luckily they were under my cap not on top) no less than three times.  Each time I calmly emptied them out and placed them back over my eyes.
The lead swimmers take off
My goal for the swim was simple: survive and set myself up to have a good rest of day.  I was in no rush to get anywhere (which is a good thing because I have no gear other than slow) and my main focus was to keep calm and relaxed.  After the congested start the waterway opened up and I found myself making less and less contact with other swimmers (let's not forget that shortly after the start most of them had made their way well ahead of me).  The only contact I made at this point was into those swimmers who would abruptly stop and go upright.

Though the water was pretty cold from the moment I jumped in, it wasn't until about an hour into the swim when I began to start to feel the effects of the temperature.  I'm not much for regrets but I couldn't help beginning to think about my choice to go sleeveless (with the arm warmers).  I'd swam in colder water in NY and never developed the chill which started to creep in.  It became clear that the short practice swim in my new suit wasn't a true indicator of how my body would handle having exposed shoulders and the inevitable heat loss from not having a fully enclosed suit.  My mind wandered also to my swim booties which were sitting in the Loco condo doing me no good at all.

By this point I simply couldn't wait for the swim to be over.  I was miserable and had entered a pretty bad head space.  "What the hell was I doing?" I asked myself.  "How was I going to make it through the rest of the day?"  Unfortunately one of the side effects of the cold was that my swim stroke had slowed to a crawl (haha, get it).  I don't normally get anywhere fast in the water but I was now traveling at a snail's pace.

I worked hard to push the negativity aside and focus on the task at hand: get out of the water.  As I began to approach the end of the swim I knew I'd been in the water way longer than I had anticipated.  I hoped that my family wouldn't be worried, but I knew they wouldn't really exhale until they saw me come out.  With their anticipation on my mind and the joy of touching dry land taking over I clawed my way up the stairs and into T1.


Swim Time: 1:50:18

T1: Swim-to-Bike Transition
I knew I couldn't have been a pretty sight as I trekked to my transition bag and the changing tent (and there are pictures that prove it) but nonetheless I had completed the 2.4 mile swim.  I've got to do WHAT now?

I was still in a bad place from the cold and it wasn't until I hit the changing tent that I realized how bad things really were.  As I attempted to change my clothes I was slowed by the violent shaking of virtually my whole body from my head to my toes.  Though I'll do some "thank yous" down below I've got to acknowledge the amazing volunteers.  Without their support (I recall a dude named Eric being my savior) I would never have "escaped" the changing tent and made it onto my bike.  I wasn't alone in being borderline hypothermic; they stationed me (wrapped in a foil blanket) among the other frigid ones near a high powered heater to help us bring our core temperatures back up.  I was given a cup of chicken soup and when they realized that my still shaking hands wouldn't allow me to hold it myself, they held it for me and offered me sips.  In total I spend approximately 19 agonizing minutes before I deemed myself fit to ride a bike for 112 miles.

I'd come to learn from my family how painfully slow that time passed for them as they waited for me to exit the tent.  I can only imagine the thoughts racing through their minds.

With the worst behind me it was time to get out and ride.
T1 Time:  16:14

Bike
Though I was no longer frozen I was far from warm and the beginning of the bike was just about getting back to normal.  I tried to focus on the nutrition plan I'd laid out and worked to get hydrated early on.  After about 15-20 minutes I found a groove and settled in to what I hoped would be my pace for the day.

Though the morning was cold it wasn't long into my ride before it was a beautiful sunny day.  Now that the chill had left my body and the sun was shining it was time to make sure not to overheat.  My white arm coolers came in handy here; not only did they protect me against sunburn and bounce back some of the heat, but each time I got a fresh bottle of water I would spray my arms producing a cooling effect.  I might actually consider wearing these for any warm weather race.

It was somewhat lonely on the first part of my ride.  My insanely long swim and lengthy T1 time put me onto the course well behind most participants; my day epitomized the idea of playing catch-up.  As I spent more time riding, I found myself back in the mix of humanity.  The 3-loop course would provide plenty of opportunity for company whether it was other slow-pokes like me or those who were well ahead of me on other loops.

One of the odd parts of the bike leg (due to how poor my swimming is in comparison to my biking and running) was the fact that I wasn't often riding with anyone of a similar pace; mostly I was either being passed or passing people.  Though it was tempting to get caught up with how fast other people were or weren't riding, I put all my focus and energy into riding my ride.

I'd heard and read that the wind on the Bee Line Highway could be unpredictable and it was exactly as described.  I did my best not to associate a particular head or tail-wind with a portion of the course but it was both unavoidable and futile.  The changing winds meant I couldn't assume anything so it was on me to adjust my effort and maintain a steady output regardless of the conditions. Prior to the race I'd set heart rate alerts on my Garmin to let me know when I was beginning to work too hard.  I'd never used this feature during training but I am confident that it was one of the keys to me having a great afternoon (both on the bike and on the run).  In addition I used alerts on my watch to remind me when it was time for drink or food.

My nutrition on the bike consisted primarily of Carbo Pro; I had one bottle loaded with approximately 2,000 calories which I kept on the downtube.  In addition to the Carbo Pro, I ate approximately 5-6 GUs throughout the ride, grabbed about 3 banana halves, and had a couple of small pieces of Bonk Breaker bars.  The mix of mostly liquid calories with some solid food served me rather well and aside from minor gas buildup (a common side-effect of the Carbo Pro) my stomach felt good throughout the ride.

My hydration plan for the day was much less tested than my nutrition plan.  Originally I had intended on drinking Ironman Perform and had been making the drink from a mix during my training.  I didn't mind the flavor but it never seemed to go down all that well.  About three weeks before IMAZ I had my first Nuun and immediately knew it was the answer.  I had originally planned to simply drop the tablets into the bottles of water provided at the bike aid stations but while waiting for my repairs in the bike shop I fell victim to an impulse buy of the Speedfil A4 bottle.  The bottle is made for horizontal aerobar mounts and is well-engineered for easy on the road fill-ups.  It ended up being the perfect match for my Nuun plan and made for easy drinking, filling, and Nuun-ing throughout the ride.  At each hand-up I simply snatched a fresh bottle of water, unloaded it into the bottle, splashed whatever was left on my arms and chest, and dropped in a Nuun tablet (or half of one).

I wish I had kept track of how much water/Nuun I actually consumed during the day but it was the last thing on my mind during the race.  I did however remember to regularly take my salt tablets and though I don’t know the final count I had no issues with dehydration (as I'd had during my solo half-Iron training effort).

I really didn't have any out-of-the-norm issues during my ride.  Though I didn't expect to have to, I did stop three times for pee breaks and an Aquaphor application - thanks for the tip Karen - but other than that, it was business as usual.  I had a fully loaded special needs bag ready to go, but happily I didn't need it and rode right by the pick-up zone.  Overall I'd describe the bike portion as relatively uneventful, which after a few bike fiascoes during tune-up races and training, was much appreciated.  There were a few highlights of the bike which helped perk me up along the way:

Seeing other Tri-Locos: The bright Loco colors made it easy to spot each other on the course.  A glimpse of another Loco, followed by a holler, was always a welcome treat.  I even got to ride near Angela and JoJo for a bit and chat about our respective mornings.

The volunteers: Big thanks to those volunteers out on the bike course, especially those stationed 15-miles into the unshaded desert.  The cheers and support means more to the participants than you might ever imagine.

Photographer Danny: Stationed about a mile before the turnaround Danny stood firm armed with his camera waiting (on edge I imagine) for photo ops of any passing Loco.  His patience paid off and there are some great photos to prove it.  Thanks Danny.

The Turnaround:  Just before the turnaround point I expected to see my family and friends.  As I approached I scanned the faces of the crowd and listened for my name.  There they were: parents, friends, cousins, aunt and uncle, cheer squads for fellow Locos, and WIFE.  In my world they were the only cheers I could hear.

Just as the beginning of the ride was a bit lonely, so was the last 1/2 loop.  By then those who were well ahead of me were off the bike course and those others still riding were mostly riding slower than I.  I plodded onward sensing the end was near, excited about spending the rest of the day on my feet.

As I approached the finish of the bike course I had one errand to run before heading to transition: I had to greet my wife.  My commitment to Ironman Arizona had conflicted with my attendance at the wedding of one of her best friends.  As part of the bridal party there was no way she would miss it, but being the devoted partner that she is, there was no way she'd miss my first Ironman either.  On virtually no sleep she drove herself to the airport in the pre-dawn hours after the wedding, flew to Arizona, and then took the light-rail into Downtown Tempe.  She made it to the race during the bike leg in time to spectate (tiredly I'm sure) most of the race.  Prior to the dismount area I spotted the Mrs., pulled over to the side, and gave her an "on-the-clock" kiss.  Apparently my cousin was the first to joke that if my total time just missed some type of cut-off or goal I'd be sure to point to the kiss as the reason.  I made the same joke in my head at least once as I checked my watch during the rest of the race!

With my wife's energy transferred to me, I pedaled the rest of the way to the dismount, handed off my bike and got ready to run.

Bike Time: 6:27:57

T2: Bike-to Run-Transition
During T2 I was in a much better place than T1.  The worst was behind me and all that stood between me and my Ironman medal was my best sport.

With the help of another fantastic volunteer I got myself ready to go.  Next time around I'll spend a bit more time planning T2 as I was a bit of a mess deciding what should stay and go from my pockets. I'd even consider a fresh shirt with the pockets loaded with exactly what I'd need.  As I was almost ready to head off I realized that I'd left my Garmin on the bike.  Always eager, my helper ran into the bike "pen" and secured my Garmin from the bike for me.

With my timepiece on my wrist I was all set to run my first marathon.

T2 Time:  9:11

Run
Leaving T2 was a great feeling.  I still had a long way to go (26.2 miles to be exact) but I felt confident that my legs would get me to the finish line.  I settled in to an easy lope amazed at how fresh my legs felt.  I glanced down at my watch and realized I had jumped out at way too quick a pace and told myself (out loud) to slow down.  After a somewhat lonely bike ride it was nice to finally be surrounded (in talking proximity) to other athletes.  I enjoyed the camaraderie while I could because after the first few miles I again found myself running at a different speed (either significantly slower or faster) than most of those around me.
Starting my first marathon.
If the first 4-5 miles were any indication of how my marathon would be, I was going to have a pretty good run.  My stride was smooth and fluid and my legs felt no ill-effects of the 112 miles they'd pedaled me along.  I still had a bit of lingering Carbo-pro gas but other than that I felt both well-nourished and hydrated.  Prior to the race I had worried about the right effort-level to put out during the bike leg; while I think I could have ridden a little harder I'm happy with how my legs felt during the marathon.

My first loop of the run was full of plenty of other runners carrying a similar pace but most of them were well ahead of me (on their 2nd and 3rd loops).  By the time I hit my 2nd loop and definitely my 3rd I was holding a pace that not many others on the course were.  Like my bike ride this made for a lot of alone time as I continuously ran past people for more than 1/2 of the marathon.  Again, it's not that I am so fast, it's just that my super-long swim and T1 placed me on the course well behind many of the folks with whom I share a similar bike and run fitness.

When I began the run I took a quick look at my overall race clock and couldn't help but start doing the calculations towards my finishing time.  Though I'd originally set my sights on finishing in about 12.5 hours that was out the window due to my horrendous morning, my goal of under 13 hours was within reach.  I ran with an eye on the clock and as the run progressed I knew it was going to be somewhat close.

I hadn't carefully reviewed the 3-loop run course so each turn was sort of a welcome surprise for me.  Running on the paths alongside the Town Lake, back and forth across the bridges, and briefly into the neighborhood on the north side offered a good amount of scenery changes to keep things interesting.  The variety at the run course aid stations was also a welcome treat.  Pretzels, bonk breaker bars, the legendary chicken soup, and oranges are just some of the snacks offered along with a variety of drinks.  I wore a race belt with two 10.5oz bottles so I could drink at my own leisure; at the first few stations I took cups and tried to fill them myself but by the fourth or fifth station I developed a new technique: I removed the caps before the stations and the eager volunteers simply filled them up for me (it worked great but I'm not sure this can be pulled off at any shorter distance races).

Of all the aid station specialties it's easy to point to my two favorites.  First place goes to the cold, wet sponges.  At every opportunity I'd grab all I could hold and scatter them about my body: the back of my neck, across my brow, under my hat, on my arms, under my shirt, pretty much anywhere.  Not only was the feeling refreshing (particularly being able to clean the salty sweat off of my face) but they helped to keep my core temperature down throughout the early part of the run while the sun was still beaming strongly.

Second place goes to the aid station featuring the Dr. Hoyt's rub-downs.  I didn't catch what was going on right away but when I realized what was happening I wanted in.  The experience is probably the closest I'll ever get to a Nascar-style pit stop: I made eye contact with some "rubbers" came to a halt and stood still as one person worked each leg.  From calf to thigh they worked in the cooling ointment and sent me on my way.  I'd never used the stuff before but with all the work my legs had put in, the sensation felt great and rejuvenating.
The Tri Loco tent and cheer squad was another major highlight of my run.  Positioned directly along one of the lake-side paths my family and friends were right there shouting and cheering for me each of the four times I passed them.  Their energy and enthusiasm was contagious and lingered on my mind for miles after I'd run by the tent.

As with the bike course, the volunteers out during the run were phenomenal and were scattered all about the course.  Even at the northernmost point of the run, on my third loop, long after the sun had said its goodbye, the volunteers stood (or sat) strong shouting encouragement to the passing racers.  I'm grateful for every smiling face, raucous cheerer, and inspirational poster along the course.

As I ran I wondered where the other Locos were and I kept my eyes peeled.  How were their days going?  How were they feeling?  I spotted one or two of them and tried to gauge how far behind them I was and if I'd ever catch them.  Eventually (at the beginning of my 3rd loop) I was able to run alongside some fellow Locos for a few minutes.  It was great to spend a few moments chatting with familiar faces and to know they were feeling strong.

My final loop of the run course was a blur and there are only a couple of things that stick out in my memory.  One of them is a mistake I will never make again: as I passed the 20-mile marker sign I said out loud (not considering my fellow athletes) something to the effect of "only six miles to go" completely forgetting the fact that I was on a 3-loop course.  I was informed by my good-natured neighbor that she was on her first loop.  I apologized and felt terrible but she was a good sport about it and we shared a laugh and some words of encouragement for each other.  About the only other thing I can remember from the main portion of the final loop is that I made a determined decision that my night would end with some In-and-Out Burger which had been tantalizing me with its odor each of the three times I passed it.
The Home Stretch:  The feeling I had over the last 1-2 miles is almost indescribable.  I ran with an ear-to-ear grin, which I’m sure had me looking borderline insane (although few can argue tackling an Ironman is a normal idea of a fun day).  There was no more uncertainty at this point; all the hard work (both in training and on race day) had paid off and I would be an Ironman.  I imagined (one last time) how it was going to feel when I ran down the chute, with spectators cheering from the bleachers on both sides and my family and friends watching my triumph (little did I know that not only did I have my cheer squad in AZ but I had other family and friends watching my progress – and even a live feed of the finish line – throughout the day).

As I passed the sign pointing me left towards the finish – a sign I'd run to the right of twice before on previous loops – the course led me into the parking lot where one day earlier I'd parked while we set up the Loco tent.  It was a bit anti-climactic but it turned out to be the calm before the storm: the dimly lit lot was my last chance to collect my thoughts.  About 50 strides later I saw the lights, heard the ruckus and made my final turn towards the finishing chute complete with the official race clock and finish line.
Taking it home!
I fired up my hammies, quads, and glutes for one final finishing push.  Admittedly I'd visualized this moment many times but this time it would be for real.  With a vigorous fist pump I crossed the finish line and became an Ironman.  Each time I imagined the finish as I ran alone in NY I’d "heard" Mike Reilly announce my name (I’d even yelled it loud for no one to hear during some of my longer runs) but when the moment came, I heard nothing but my inner voice, "you did it!"  Apparently Mr. Reilly did in fact call out my name (correctly pronounced from what I'm told) but in the end I didn't need him to say it.  I could say it myself:

"Andrew Zitofsky, you are an Ironman!"

I received my medal, posed for my post-race photo and sought out my family and friends who were truly as excited for me as I was for myself.  At the risk of sounding less-ironclad I had actually imagined shedding a tear or two of joy when I finished the race. The sight of my family’s faces was almost enough to choke me up a bit, but there were no tears, just hugs, kisses, and ear-to-ear smiles.

During the race I rocked a temporary tattoo of the blue prostate
cancer ribbon.  I've since replaced it with a real ink version
which (somewhat shockingly) my father also had ink'd.

After a quick rendezvous (made difficult by the fences and barricades) with the family I made a beeline to the massage tent and added my name to the waiting list.  Then I checked out the food tent; oddly I didn't find anything appealing but I grabbed a few snacks anyway and went back to wait my turn.  When my time came I hopped up on the table, laid face down and immediately knew I was in the hands of a skilled professional.  Indeed the therapist I’d landed specialized in trigger point and sports massages for many years; lucky me.

Once my massage wrapped up I met up with my family and set out to find some other Locos.  We trekked over to the Tri Loco tent where we met up with the other finishers.  We hung out there for a while recapping our days and cheering on the participants still out on the course.  The sun had long since set, yet the determination and will of those still running was unbreakable.  The runners wore expressions which displayed a wide range of emotions from joy to discomfort, but all the racers had one thing in common: grit.  While no one would argue that completing an Ironman in 8.5 hours is easy, I'd venture to say that it may be just as hard to finish in 15+ hours.

After about an hour at the tent it was time for my Iron-day to end with some gluttony.  With my cheer crew in tow we headed to the packed In-and-Out Burger.  I'd passed the joint three times during the marathon and by the 2nd time I knew I'd be scarfing down a post-race animal burger and a black and white shake.  I'm generally anti fast-food, and though In-and-Out Burger falls into the category, in my book it's a cut above.  The rest of the group may not have enjoyed it as much as I did but the artery clogging grub totally hit the spot.  My day was complete.

When we made it back to my cousin's house we doled out the sleeping arrangements; with so many of us in the house we basically each found some open real estate and claimed it as our own.  I had my portion of the couch, caddy-cornered from the Mrs., with my buddy on the floor next to us.  We were all still a bit giddy as we laid down to rest and the whole scene was reminiscent of an adolescent sleepover party.  Finally as the excitement wore off ,silence swept over the room.

Hundreds of hours, hundreds of miles, tons of sacrifices, and an Iron-will had paid off.  The silly grin I wore during the final mile was back as I drifted off to sleep thankful for having the day I'd had.

Giving Thanks
Wife: I'm truly blessed to have Rachel in my life.  Her never-ending support and belief in me helped push me forward on days where I doubted myself.  The sacrifices I made on my journey to Ironman affected no one more than her and yet she never complained.  Instead she encouraged me every step of the way.  I can't image having crossed the finish line and not seeing her beautiful, smiling face, and neither could she.  Thanks for everything babe, I couldn't have done it without you.

Parents:  My Mom and Dad are two of the most supportive and giving people in the world; they would literally give me the skin off their back.  They've always put my sister and me first and I hope that one day I can be for my kids what they have been for me.  Seeing as how they flew to Miami to be there for my first Sprint Tri, it was no surprise that they'd be joining me in AZ.  I'm so glad they were there to share my special day.  Their encouragement, not just on my Ironman journey but during my entire life, is a major reason for all of the successes that I've enjoyed.

Friends:  Throughout life there are many friends who come and go, but there are also those who are always there.  I'm lucky to have the friends I have and I truly appreciate their support.  My early bedtimes, lack of late nights out, and weekends jam-packed full of training, were never held against me.  I never would have expected anyone to travel to AZ to be part of the action; not one but both Jodi and Jonah made the journey to be there for me.  I'll never forget it guys.

Family: One of the few things in life which you can't choose is your family.  Lucky for me I was dealt a good lot.  From those who directly supported my training (runs with my cousin Dara, my first ever century-ride with my Uncle Rich, a post-100-mile-ride lounge in eastern Long Island with my cousins Cindy, Randy and Amy - not to mention their hospitality and cheerleading for one of my other races), to those who provided moral support along the way I can't thank you all enough.  Special thanks go out to the O'Neals and the Levines who helped make my stay in Arizona comfortable from start to finish.  I'm glad I was able to spend time with you all and that you were there to share my first Ironman experience.
Best cheer squad ever.
Donors:  With the help of more than 50 donors my road to AZ helped raise almost $3,000 for the Prostate Cancer Foundation.  The PCF means a lot to me and my family and I’m glad that my involvement in triathlon has helped raise both money and hopefully awareness for the foundation and its efforts.  Thanks to everyone who donated in support of my Ironman endeavor.

Locos:  Training mostly solo was grueling at times. Knowing that there were 17 others plugging their way through the same workouts was of great comfort during the months of hard training.  I can attribute much of my progression in the sport of triathlon to the Locos and their support.  I am honored to be part of such a great group of individuals.  The Locos are a group where supporting and being proud of each other’s triumphs is just as important as one's own successes.  Special thanks to Mario for the condo arrangements, Coach Tim for coordinating all the training, Danny for traveling to AZ solely to support others and be our official photographer, Angela for loaning me a bike so I was able to race in Miami during the summer, and Victor for planting the triathlon seed.  I could probably think of something to thank each of the Locos for but I'll sum it up with one final "thanks!"  You guys rock!

Coach Tim:  I remember being introduced to Coach after one of my first triathlons.  I had no clue where I’d be going in the sport but I still remember his sage advice and kind words.  I’m grateful for Coach’s support as I made my way from a breast-stroking fool to becoming an Ironman.  Coach didn’t just create my training plan, he provided words of wisdom, moral support, and answered any possible question (even the ones I’d yet to think of).  Despite being geographically far away, it just never felt that way.  No email or call went unanswered and there was even his summer visit to NY along the way to his participation in the age group nationals.  Thanks again Coach.

The Volunteers:  An Ironman event (or any triathlon really) does not exist without scads of volunteers to help throughout the day: from those who apply race numbers in the morning to the volunteers greeting and catching racers at the finish line, their support makes the day possible.  Before Arizona I thought I understood the importance of the race volunteers but I hadn’t seen anything yet.  The volunteers in AZ were second to none.  Special shout-outs to those on the edges of both the bike and run courses, the volunteers who worked in transition, and the massage therapists stationed for hours on end providing post-race massages.

I think that covers pretty much everyone, well except for maybe YOU.  If you made it all the way down to the end of this epically long read I am mightily impressed.  If this is your first time on this site, I hope you come back.  If you been here before, thanks for returning.

In any case, thanks for reading!

2 comments:

  1. First time reading your blog, and what an awesome post.
    Huge congratulations to you for such an achievement, and for raising money for a worthy cause on top of it.
    You made me tear up through your tough and happy experiences, while talking about the love and support of your family and friends, and thinking of myself maybe one day becoming an IW surrounded by my loved ones.
    Best of luck with everything else you do.

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  2. Andrew - Congrats on your Ironman Arizona finish! My name is Kenrick Smith (a fellow triathlete - you can find me at www.k17sport.com) I've recently started a new website called The Bruised Banana - which features race reports from triathletes and runners on races all over the country. We'd love to have you as a contributor on The Bruised Banana website. You can find out more here at www.thebruisedbanana.com or you can email us at info@thebruisedbanana.com Thanks and best of luck with the rest of your season.

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