Sunday, September 6, 2015
Driving into St. George, there is a sign noting that the county is named Hurricane. My wife always liked to ask why that was the case. This year, we saw the sign as we drove towards Sand Hollow Reservoir, the swim venue for Ironman St. George. It had become an annual tradition to stop and check out the water before checking into our hotel. Ever since the swim at the inaugural Ironman St. George in 2010, one of my biggest concerns each year was the water temperature. That year, temperatures as low as 52 degrees led to fifty people not making the swim cut off, and many more than that were ultimately affected by hypothermia. This year the temperature was already 63 degrees. The water felt nice when I tried out my new wetsuit, the Tyr Freak of Nature. My wife had a memorable reaction when she saw the credit card bill and said, “that much for a wetsuit, what is it made out of, gold?”. Four days later I would tell her that the wetsuit might have saved my life.
The days preceding the 2012 Ironman St. George were unusual insofar as I felt an unusual calm. Usually, prior to my races, I feel nervous. Not this time. This carried through to the morning of the race, when I awoke before my alarm at 3:15am. I took in almost 500 calories right away, which was also unusual for me. Usually my stomach is nervous, but not today. I gathered my special needs bags and my bicycle pump and made my way to the buses. As I got on the bus, I remained relaxed, sipping on my pre-race vanilla soy latte. Arriving at Sand Hollow Reservoir, it was 65 degrees an calm, just like the weather report had predicted. I pumped up my tired, got body marked, put on my sunscreen, body glide and my wetsuit and handed over my bicycle pump to my friend Rudy. Rudy and his wife Wendy had come to St. George to lend their support and friendship for my third consecutive Ironman St. George. We had already been told that this would be the last full Ironman at St. George. Something about people not wanting to sign up for so difficult a race. There were 80 people starting the race who had finished the first two. That felt pretty cool!
I made my way to the swim start and down to the waters edge. The air was calm and the water was like glass. Mike Riley, known for calling “You are an Ironman!” at the finishes of many Ironman events, told us to enter the water just before the pros were to start. I got a little concerned that I was going to be in the water for a full fifteen minutes before the start, but the water temperature was now about 63 degrees and I figured it would be ok. Besides, I was determined to start right at the front this year. I got into the water to my knees and the gun went off for the pros. I then slowly made my way into the cold water, dabbed water on my face and slowly swam towards the front of the line. I did put myself about 20 yards from the farthest buoy, figuring that I could angle my way in. The past two years, I had swum 1:11, but both years I had swum relatively easy. My swim training had gone well this year, and I planned to go off as fast as I could, taking advantage of the potential ironman draft. Last year, as the time to the start got closer, the front of the line moved forward, and I didn’t, ultimately impeding my attempt to start quickly at the front. This year, as the front of the line move ahead little my little, so did I. The waters were still calm when the gun went off. I started as fast as I could, and was surprised to find no jostling, no one swimming over me and I actually had feet in front of me. I was flying. I got into a solid rhythm and I felt comfortable. Occasionally, I would lose the feet of the person in front of me, but then there would be someone else replacing them. As I swam fast towards the first turn buoy, I realized that the front of the pack wasn’t stringing out far ahead of me, which is what typically happens to me in the swim portion of a triathlon. Later on, another athlete with a lot of open water swim experience would tell me that he realized from how fast we were swimming that there was a pretty strong current building behind us.
As I turned left at the farthest buoy, staying about 10-15 feet wide in order to avoid the typically turn buoy jam, I turned into waves coming at my left side. At this point in time, I really wasn’t thinking about the changing weather and the possibility that this could get worse. I was just thinking about getting to the next turn buoy. I realized that the people to my right were getting pushed further out and then I tried to make sure that I was moving in a direction that wouldn’t push me further away from the next turn buoy. I was glad to be breathing to my right side, since that was away from the waves. Finally, I saw the next red buoy and realized that I’d been pushed about 20 yards away from it, so I directed myself towards it and made my way around the buoy. When I made the turn, I began to see and feel the full force of the oncoming waves. I had recently read an article about open water swimming, so I shortened my stroke and started making my way forward. Remarkably, the next two buoys came about quickly, which I didn’t realize was probably because the wind had pushed them together. Around this time the waves began to come faster and with more fury, finally catching me unaware and causing me to swallow/breath in some water. This is always disconcerting, but under these circumstances was a little bit frightening. I gathered myself and continued forward. The other athletes were scattered all over the place. Drafting wasn’t something to be considered. The waves seemed to only get bigger. I wondered why I wasn’t seasick, but decided that I would just be thankful that I wasn’t. I was moving forward. I wondered momentarily if my all neoprene wetsuit was a help or a hindrance, as it kept me high in the water with the waves coming at me.
Another wave hit me in the mouth, and again I swallowed/breathed in some more water. This took my breath away and I stopped to tread water. Unfortunately, this only exposed me to more waves crashing over my head as I struggled to maintain where I was, kicking my feet in more of a bicycle kick. This only made me feel more short of breath. I looked around and didn’t see any kayaks, or for that matter, any other athletes. Then, my right calf suddenly cramped up. For a brief moment, I got scared. Several years ago I struggled with panic attacks in the open water and the feeling of panic began to invade my consciousness. I thought, what if I can’t do this, how do I get help? Raising my arm would only cause me to sink, besides, I couldn’t see anyone. I might die, I thought. And then, I remembered that my coach had told me that the most important thing during an ironman was to “stay in the moment”. And so I did. I decided to just start swimming forward and focus on each stroke, not to think about what had already happened, or worry about what might happen. There was one thought that did stay in my consciousness for the rest of the swim, and that was my hope that no one was going to drown today. I had stopped worrying about myself, but I knew that there were athletes that normally struggled to finish the swim. What was happening to them? Were they going to cancel the swim? How would they do that? Stay in the moment, I kept reminding myself. I relaxed, tried to time the waves so that they wouldn’t push me back and began sighting the large rock that I knew I had to swim around. I was moving once again and before I knew it, I was to the right of the rock. Only then did I realize that there were a lot of smaller rocks sticking out of the water and the 5 foot swells might push me into them. I aimed to my right, looking forward to getting around the rocks and turning left towards the swim finish. I hoped that once I turned it would get easier. That didn’t happen. The waves kept coming, and now they were coming to my breathing side. I occasionally breathed to my left, which I had practiced and was comfortable with, but that didn’t allow me to see the waves coming at me.
I had made my way past the large rock. I couldn’t see any other athletes and could see no more turn buoys. Apparently, the final turn buoy had been blown off course. One thing I did know, and that was the fact that the swim finish was on the other side of the large rock. So, I turned towards the finish. In retrospect, I may have turned a little before where the final turn buoy was supposed to have been. However, it wasn’t there, and I didn’t know any better. As I made my way to the finish, the waves pushed me to the left of the swim exit and I realized that I had to negotiate getting around a large platform that was in front of me in the water. I swam towards the exit, almost not giving myself enough room, as another wave almost pushed me into the platform. Soon, I could see the bottom and I’ve never felt better about touching the ramp at the swim exit.
As I came out of the water, I looked up, the time on the clock showed that I had completed the swim in 1 hour and 19 minutes. I had originally hoped for a 1 hour and 5 minute swim, but I knew that my time was good under the impossible conditions. I did not know at this point that close to 600 people wouldn’t make it past the swim. Close to 1800 people had signed up for the 2012 Ironman St. George. Close to 1200 would be contesting the rest of the race. Sixty percent of the women who started did not make the swim cut off! Approximately 100 men in my age group started the swim, and only 59 made it onto the bike. The older men fared much worse. This was a swim course for younger and stronger men. The hypothermic 2010 swim that led to an approximate 15% DNF (Did Not Finish) rate, was a distant memory. We had just set a new standard for one the toughest ironman swims ever. Later, I would hear some stories that would add exclamation marks to my frightened journey. Two kayaks overturned. In fact, one athlete found an empty kayak with a life jacket floating next to it. Another athlete saved a person from drowning and got them on a boat. One of the boats was completely filled with athletes and began taking on water. The driver’s 9 year old daughter was screaming in fear. Athletes in the water, unable to move forward, were calling for help and they were told they had to wait for the boat to come back for them. Another athlete later shared with me that he resisted being pulled out of the water only to realize that he'd been going backwards!
It was becoming ironic that “Titanic: The Musical” was playing at the Tuacahn Ampitheater. The idea of Ironman “St. George: The Musical” was beginning to form in my mind as I tried to make sense of this day. I laid down for the wet suit strippers, grabbed my bag and made my way to the changing tent. I sat down and the guy next to me told me that he had been pulled from the water and had already called it a day. I didn’t get to full import of this until later. I followed my well rehearsed transition, putting on my helmet and my shoes, putting on sun screen and quickly made my way out of the tent. I stopped for more sunscreen and got my bike. Transition time right around 5 minutes, almost the same as last year. Pretty good under the circumstances. After I passed the timing mats, I saw my friend Rudy. I took the time to walk over and say “I hope that now one drowned today”. I mounted my bike and began pedaling. Later I would find that I had the 314th fastest swim time overall, and was actually 14th in my age group out of the water. My first two years at St. George I was around 30th in my age group.
In previous years, I remembered that the bike ride from Transition to the main road went by pretty quickly. As I began my ride, I began wondering why it seemed to be taking so much longer. It wasn’t like my legs were a problem, or that people were passing me. I didn’t realize that I was already feeling the force of 20-30 mph headwinds. One of the reasons I probably didn’t notice was that I was already having pretty severe stomach cramps. The previous year, I had suffered with stomach cramps throughout the day. This felt worse. I cautiously took sips of water. I made my way up the longest sustained climb on the course. My legs felt fine, but I needed to get calories. I tried to take some gel, but it was tough. Every so often, I would belch and the contents in my stomach would come up. That wasn’t good. I tried my best to stay tucked in my aero position, but that was uncomfortable due to the cramping. I had survived the swim, I had to survive the bike. I made my decision to stop at the first water station and try to use a port-a-potty. I did, and it didn’t help.
Back on the bike, I continued to persevere. Being a physician, I palpated my own abdomen, only to find it was quite tender. I began to realize that I probably had an ileus. That would mean that my intestines had shut down. Swallowing too much of the Sand Hollow Reservoir could have set this off. My GI tract was not working properly. I continued to try to sip water and take in some gel, and the cramping got worse. When I arrived at the next water station I tried the port-a-potty again and then went to the medical tent, where I sat in a chair and pondered my day. Should I just give up? Suffering with this level of cramps would make for a horrible day. As I sat there, I felt a little better. I also thought, hell, I just made it through the most difficult ironman swim ever, I was a three time registrant for Ironman St. George, and damn if I’m not going to be a three time finisher! If I’m going to sit down, I might as well sit on the bike, I thought. So, that’s what I did. I got back on my bike and just began pedaling easily into the jaws of the 25 mile climb towards “The Wall”. Ironman is about the ability to adjust your plans and compensate, to adapt to the conditions. I decided to stop eating and drinking. While I knew that I could not sustain no nutrition all day, I figured that I needed to give my GI tract a chance to rest. For the next hour and a half I took in no fluid or nutrients and just worked on pedaling as comfortably as possible. I stayed in the moment and tried to ignore the fact that the mile markers were coming along at an interminable pace. When I reached the climb that came before “The Wall”, and saw people walking their bikes up it, I realized the full force of the winds. I guessed that the average wind speed was 30 mph, with gusts to 40-50 mph. Later, I read that Ben Hoffman, the eventual winner of the race, was almost knocked off his bike by a wind gust. Another athlete later told me that he was producing 250 watts of power on a gradual downhill against the wind and was going all of 10 mph! Two years previously, on the friday before the inaugural St. George Ironman, winds of 40-50 mph reared their ugly head. I’ll never forget thinking, I don’t know how I could handle this course with winds like this? I was now finding out the answer.
Finally, I could see “The Wall”. It’s a half mile section of the course that reaches gradients of 14%. As I got closer to it, I suddenly realized that we would make a right turn, and maybe the wind would be different. That turned out to be the case. I won’t say that I flew up “The Wall”, but it was relatively easy compared to everything I had already done. A 30 mph tailwind will really help a steep climb! Unfortunately, the top of “The Wall” led to a left turn back into the brutal headwinds. Fortunately, there was another water station ahead. I stopped yet again for the port-a-potty’s. Still, not much help, but I was doing somewhat better. I got back on my bike and started to pedal and my chain stuck. Shit! I got off and called for help. My chain was stuck between my small chain ring and the frame. It wasn’t loosening up. Three mechanics finally made their way over and started working on my bike. This wasn’t looking good. As I stood there, all I could think was, “I’ve made it this far, I can’t be stopped by a mechanical”. I also thought about the Tour de France and how professional cyclist’s make use of the time when they have mechanical failures. I asked for a banana and a bottle of Gatorade Perform and sat down and took in some nutrition. It felt ok. Finally, with the use of something akin to a small crowbar, they got my chain loosened. It had probably taken 10-15 minutes, but I was feeling somewhat better. I got back on my bike and tested the shifting. Everything worked and I was on my way.
Soon, I made the right turn at Veyo. Normally, you hit a headwind at this point, but not today. Finally, after over 50 miles of cycling, I had a consistent tailwind. I was flying. I began passing people and the only cyclist that passed me was a pro triathlete on his second loop of the bike. As I made my way down the highway, I realized that my speed was probably right around 50mph. I kept reminding myself to stay relaxed, I wasn’t going to waste this opportunity. I got to the end of the first loop and began my second loop. Things were looking up. I began passing the same people that I’d already passed twice before (remember, I had stopped three times). I never wondered what my bike split would have been like without the stomach cramps and the stops. It didn’t matter, I was “in the moment”. I started taking in nutrition. I had stopped for my special needs bag and picked up a cooked red potato with some olive oil and salt. It was like manna from heaven, and actually helped to settle my stomach. I would nurture that treat onto the run. It may have saved my day. The mile markers felt like they were coming faster this time around. When I hit Mile 80, I recalled how two years earlier I had bonked. I checked myself and realized that I was doing ok. Mile 90 came, “The Wall” came again, albeit a little harder than the first time. However, I realized that I didn’t even remember going up the horrific climb before “The Wall” the second time around. I was going to make it through the bike. I had spent somewhere between 30-40 minutes of my bike ride off of my bike. I didn’t push for the last 12 miles, mostly downhill and flying. I wanted my legs to be ready for the run. I had no idea how my GI tract would react this year, but I wanted to give it my best shot. Coming to the dismount line, I have to admit that I was relieved. My bike split was 7:51, almost an hour longer than 2010 and almost an hour and a half longer than 2011. My age group ranking ended up being 47th (out of 55 who finished) and I had dropped from being 14th after the swim to being 40th in my age group. I was now 684th overall. But I was on my feet!
I grabbed my bag and took the time to stop and pee (a good sign from a hydration perspective), then quickly put on my socks, my shoes, my fuel belt and my hat and made it out of the tent. I stopped again to have sunscreen slathered everywhere on me and made my way out of transition. Another solid 5 minute ironman transition. Not too bad. I had seen the clock and knew that I was already 9 hours and 23 minutes into my day. I would not finish this race in under 13 hours, but I could make it in under 14. But enough of that, stay in the moment! I began running, and it felt good! Shortly thereafter, I ran up to a guy named Toby, and found that he was on his second lap. We began running together and it felt good. We were going downhill and I asked him what our pace was. He said about 8:20/mile. Woah! That’s a little to fast I said and he agreed, so we found a moderate pace that we both felt comfortable with. In fact, he told me that I was helping to pace him. I told him that he was helping to pace me. We ran together for the entire loop, shared stories and just helped each other. After we finished my first lap, he pushed ahead and I decided not to push too hard. I was following my race plan. It turned out that I maintained a very solid and steady 9:20 pace for the first 12 miles of the run. I was still gentle with my nutrition, alternating Gatorade Perform with occasional sips of coke and water to keep the stomach contents form being too strong. It seemed to be working. As the miles went by, I had expected to see my friend Rudy. I had no idea what was unfolding for my family. The ironman.com tracking was not functional and they had no idea whether I had even completed the bike. Rudy had based my expected time into transition on my very slow first loop, and I had made it onto the run course about 15 minutes sooner than he had expected. My wife was freaking out, worried that something had happened to me. What they didn’t know was that I was beginning to worry if something had happened to Rudy. He was supposed to see me at Miles 2, 4, 6, 9, and 11. Finally, Rudy found out that I had dropped my bike off and taken my run bag. He did the math and found me at Mile 11. He told me that my pace was solid.
I probably slowed just a little towards the end of my second lap, but was still in the nine minute/mile range (maybe now a little closer to the upper end). As I started the third lap, I had hoped to start pushing, but when I hit Mile 19 and tried to increase my effort, my stomach began acting up and my legs also tightened a bit. I decided to modulate. Pushing too hard now could have a huge impact. This is the point where trying to go 30 second per mile faster could ultimately add a half an hour to my run. So, I ran the downhills and did a walk/run on the uphills. Ultimately, my pace for the last 9 miles would slow to about 12:00 pace. Still, not that many people were passing me. As I ran up the last uphill section, hitting mile 24, I suddenly felt very nauseated and weak. I slowed to a walk and collected myself. I walked to the final turnaround and began to jog the last downhill section. I wouldn’t fly down this hill, but I would run it. I stopped a couple of times to walk for 20-30 feet, just to make sure that I would be ok. I was going to finish in under 14 hours. As I came down the finishing chute, I had my right hand up with three fingers showing, as Mike Riley said, “Michael Wasserman, a three-time St. George finisher, you are an ironman!”
My finishing time of 13:52:21, put me in 479th place overall (passing 205 people during the run). My marathon time of 4:30:39 was the 18th fastest in my age group and moved me from 40th off the bike to 24th in my age group at the finish. While this was my slowest St. George finish, it was my best placement. Approximately 100 men in my age group started the race, and only 55 finished. 1800 people were signed up to race, we may never know exactly how many actually were at the swim start, but only 1024 finished. This was arguably the highest DNF percentage of all time for an ironman.
Because of Ironman St. George’s reputation as one of the toughest ironman courses in the world from it’s first two years of existence, it had already been decided that this would be it’s final year as an ironman course. I started the day as only one of eighty people to have the opportunity to finish all three years. Only 28 of them ultimately made it to the finish line in 2012. I’m proud that I was one of them. It is remarkable that 2012 made the first two years seem easy! The toughness of the course, combined with the brutal weather conditions, made this a fitting end to what will go down in history as a the hardest ironman of all time.
In the end, there was only one word for this day, and that is epic.